By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Florida Governor Rick Scott's efforts to purge non-U.S. citizens from the state's voter rolls, a move that has triggered legal challenges from voting rights groups, have been dealt the second significant setback in a week.
A federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that the state's effort in 2012 to identify voters who were improperly registered violated the National Voter Registration Act because it was conducted less than 90 days before the U.S. presidential election.
Last Thursday, in the face of mounting pressure from local election officials, Florida's secretary of state postponed a push to identify non-citizens on voter lists, saying the project would wait until a new federal database is completed next year to help check the citizenship of voters.
Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said the state should stop attempting to run systematic, statewide purges of voter rolls. She argued they have high error rates and often disqualify legitimate voters.
"This ruling should be a major wake-up call in Tallahassee," she said.
The state has not decided if it will appeal the ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"We are reviewing the decision," said Brittany Lesser, a spokeswoman for Florida's Secretary of State Ken Detzner.
The 2012 effort has been the focus of several lawsuits from voter rights groups, which claimed it was plagued with errors.
Two years ago, Florida officials said they identified an initial list of 182,000 potential non-citizens, but the number was reduced to 200 after election authorities, prompted by news reports and complaints from voting rights groups, acknowledged errors in the original list.
Although attorneys for the state argued in the appeals court that what happened in 2012 was no longer relevant, the judges decided to rule on the issue because Florida has said it still plans to scrub ineligible voters from registration rolls.
Scott defends the effort as an attempt to protect the integrity of voter rolls.
The judges said the state can still remove non-citizens who are discovered, but that no systematic culling of the rolls can be done so close to the general election.
Critics have said from the start that Scott, a Republican up for re-election this year, was running a purge that would net mostly black and Hispanic voters, blocs which lean Democratic in statewide races.
Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said "the cries of voting-rights organizations in 2012 were well-founded." He said the court's ruling casts doubt on motives of this year's now-suspended search for non-citizens on the voting rolls.
"The lasting impact should make the people of Florida skeptical of voting manipulations that originate out of Tallahassee," he said.
Scott has said that he sought only clean elections, arguing that non-citizens on the registration rolls would dilute the ballots of legitimate voters.
(Additional reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Miami; Editing by Kevin Gray and Alden Bentley)