Florida considers stopping Voter Participation Center's registration drive letters

By their own estimate, officials with a Washington nonprofit have registered 200,000 voters in Florida the past eight years.

This year, the same group, the Voter Participation Center, has mailed another 420,000 registration forms to residents hoping to enlist more.

But state officials are considering ways to stop the center from sending any more registration forms, which the state calls confusing.

"We are evaluating whether there is way to prevent VPC from sending such confusing letters, which are frequently going to ineligible voters and making many Floridians think the letters came from our department," Chris Cate, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office, wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "Meanwhile, we have contacted the organization, expressed our very serious concern that they are misleading voters, offered to provide them the complaints sent to the department about their mailings, and asked that they make a concerted effort to improve their lists so that only eligible voters who aren't registered are being contacted."

The objections come as the state has made other moves to block greater access to the ballot box.

State officials are locked in a legal battle with the federal government over purging non-U.S. citizens from voter rolls. The state sued the federal government to gain access to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security database that could help officials spot non-U.S. citizens. The U.S. Department of Justice subsequently sued the state alleging that its purge of voters is illegal. Meanwhile, under Gov. Rick Scott and a Republican-controlled Legislature, early voting has been curtailed and more restrictions have been imposed on voter registration drives.

For Seth McKee, a political science professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, the flap over the Voter Participation Center registration drive fits a pattern.

"It's a short-term strategy the Republicans have," McKee said. "They can't grow their base, which, demographically, is an overwhelmingly white party. So they're doing what they can to whittle down the voters most likely to support the other party through the legal process."

But state officials say they only want to prevent confusion among registered voters. In an email to Times, Cate said that the Division of Elections has received more than 8,000 voter registration applications from the center, but a "high volume" of those applications noted they had been sent to deceased family members. Others were for people who had never lived in Florida, and some were for noncitizens, minors and "even animals."

"As a result, our voter assistance hotline calls have increased with calls from concerned and confused citizens sharing their frustration over the organization sending these applications," Cate said. "The appearance of the mailing is misleading since it appears that the mailing was initiated by the Florida secretary of state."

Founded in 2004, the Voter Participation Center tries to increase voting among single women by making it easier for them to register to vote. The center also seeks to increase participation among minorities and people between the ages of 18 and 29. Its mailers include self-addressed envelopes to the Division of Elections.

Page Gardner, the center's president, acknowledged last week that the databases used to identify potential voters aren't perfect. A few registered voters complained that they were confused upon receiving the forms. But a phone number is on the form telling the recipient to call and confirm their registration status if they have any questions. And Gardner said last week that state officials had lodged no complaints.

Told now that state officials are considering action, Gardner said that the center has been cooperating with the state.

"There have been discussions about every aspect of our program with the Florida officials," Gardner said. "If anyone should know about the uncertainties with any database, it's Florida. But every year, we have invested more in our database so that we can reach more voters."

So far at least, the mailers haven't caused too much confusion in Tampa Bay, according to officials with the Pinellas and Hillsborough County supervisor of elections offices. Pasco's supervisor, Brian Corley, said the center's mailers have been a problem in the past, but that this year the center has made "tremendous strides" with their form, so it's not as confusing.

"We've had some complaints," Corley said. "But it's been an improvement so far."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or mvansickler@tampabay.com.

Florida considers stopping Voter Participation Center's registration drive letters 06/26/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 26, 2012 5:59pm]

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