Politics

September 29, 2012

Florida voter-registration scandal spreads

At least 10 Florida counties have now identified suspicious voter registration forms turned in by a firm working for the Republican Party.

By MATEA GOLD, JOSEPH TANFANI and MELANIE MASON Tribune Washington Bureau

Florida elections officials said Friday that at least 10 counties have identified suspicious and possibly fraudulent voter registration forms turned in by a firm working for the Republican Party of Florida, which has filed an election fraud complaint with the state Division of Elections against its one-time consultant.

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A woman votes at a fire station in Jupiter, Fla., on Nov. 4, 2008. The Republican Party of Florida has fired a get-out-the-vote firm after learning of questionable new voter registrations submitted in at least 10 Florida counties.

The Associated Press

The controversy in Florida – which began with possibly fraudulent forms that first cropped up in Palm Beach County – has engulfed the Republican National Committee, which admitted Thursday that it urged state parties in seven swing states to hire the firm, Strategic Allied Consulting.

The RNC paid the company at least $3.1 million -- routed through the state parties of Florida, Nevada, Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia -- to register voters and run get-out-the-vote operations. Wisconsin and Ohio had not yet paid the firm for get-out-the-vote operations it was contracted to do.

The RNC severed its ties to the firm Thursday after questions arose about the work Strategic Allied did in Palm Beach County, where election officials have turned over to prosecutors 106 voter registration forms submitted by one worker, some of which contained apparent forgeries and other problems.

Now elections officials across Florida are scrutinizing voter registration forms turned in to their counties on behalf of the state Republican Party. The state elections division is also investigating.

Florida GOP officials -- who said they hired Strategic Allied at the request of the RNC -- alleged in their complaint Thursday that the firm turned in forms with fake signatures and false information, said Chris Cate, spokesman for the Division of Elections, which will turn over its findings to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Vicki Davis, president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, said Friday that she had heard from elections officials in Lee, Bay, Clay, Santa Rosa, Escambia and Okaloosa counties who had also identified problematic voter registration forms turned in by the Florida GOP. Pasco County officials discovered possibly fraudulent forms during the Republican primary, Davis said.

Cate, the spokesman for the state elections division, said possibly fraudulent forms have also been reported in Miami-Dade and Duval, two of the state's most populous counties.

The number of suspicious voter registration applications was unusual, Davis said. "There might be an occasional one, but I don't think we've ever had this number of counties that have had this number of cases all at the same time," she said.

In Santa Rosa County, elections officials found 100 problematic voter registration applications out of a batch of roughly 400 turned in by the state Republican Party.

"Anyone with any sense would have known there was something wrong," said elections supervisor Ann W. Bodenstein.

Most were changes in current registrations filed in the names of real voters, but signatures were spelled differently than the applicants' names. Fake house numbers were given, and dates of birth did not match the names. The biggest red flag was that most of the forms were missing Social Security numbers.

"It was that flagrant," she said. "In no way did they look genuine."

Bodenstein said it appeared that whoever had been filling out the forms had been working off a database of voters that was at least four years old. She said she thought it was the work of "bottom of the totem pole" workers who were trying to reach a certain quota in order to be paid. Bodenstein reported the suspicious forms to the Office of the State Attorney for the First Judicial Circuit of Florida, which sent out investigators Thursday.

Bodenstein stressed that elections officials would strive to protect every vote.

"We will not disenfranchise anybody," she said.

But if fraudulent forms changing the addresses of actual voters are inadvertently processed, they could create obstacles at the polls. If someone's address is changed within the same county, they could still cast a ballot once poll workers were able to establish that the voter was in the correct precinct.

"It's another step the clerk, the poll worker and the voter would have to go through in order to cast a vote," Davis said.

Things would get more complicated if a voter's address has been changed to another county. If that were the case, the voter would be forced to cast a provisional ballot, which would be evaluated later in the week by a local canvassing board.

More than 2,000 provisional ballots were cast in Florida in 2008; less than half of those ballots were ultimately counted, according to University of Florida election law professor Daniel Smith.

Strategic Allied is run by an Arizona-based man named Nathan Sproul, who has been dogged by charges in the past that his employees destroyed Democratic registrations. No charges were ever filed.

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