By Michael Peltier
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Florida election officials will have access to a federal database to help purge its voter rolls of non-citizens under an agreement reached between state and federal officials and welcomed on Saturday by Florida's Republican governor.
The Department of Homeland Security will allow state officials to access the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) database.
Florida and federal officials have been battling over access to the database for several weeks. Florida filed a lawsuit against the Homeland Security Department to gain access to the database. The state was hit by a lawsuit from the Justice Department seeking to stop the purge.
Justice Department officials have said the database is not a comprehensive listing of citizens and that state officials failed to hand over key information to cross-reference the listing.
"We've already confirmed that non-citizens have voted in past elections here in Florida," Governor Rick Scott, who has spearheaded the purge effort, said in a statement welcoming the agreement.
"Now that we have the cooperation of the Department of Homeland Security, our state can use the most accurate citizenship database in the nation to protect the integrity of Florida's election process."
Florida state officials have said they are examining a list of nearly 180,000 possible non-citizens and have forwarded the names of nearly 2,700 registered voters to local election officials seeking confirmation of their citizenship status.
Supporters of the purge say it aims to protect the integrity of voter rolls. Critics say the effort relies on faulty information and risks disenfranchising legitimate voters.
The agreement was signaled in a July 9 letter sent by Alejandro Mayorkas, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, to Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner.
The letter informed Detzner that the database would become available to state election officials once a memorandum of understanding is agreed to by both parties over its use.
Detzner applauded the agency's decision in a letter to local election supervisors on Saturday.
"Florida voters are counting on their state and federal governments to cooperate in a way that ensures elections are fair, beginning with ensuring the voter rolls are current and accurate," Detzner said.
"We now have a commitment to cooperate from DHS and we look forward to a partnership that improves the integrity of our election process."
The agreement to grant Florida access comes just over two weeks after a federal judge in Tallahassee rejected a request by the Justice Department to prevent the state from proceeding with its voter purge.
District Judge Robert Hinkle said his ruling was based in part on assurances from Florida election officials that they would not forward any more names to county elections supervisors based on the previous list of 180,000 people.
That list was drawn from drivers' license and voter registration records and had proven to be inaccurate.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham)