Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Politics

In voter registration fraud case, it's not Mickey Mouse you have to worry about

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TALLAHASSEE — The obviously fraudulent applications filed by a vendor hired by the Republican Party of Florida have gained wide attention in a case that's now being investigated by law enforcement.

The dead woman registered to vote in Santa Rosa County. Phony addresses in Palm Beach County for voters that lead to a gas station, a Land Rover dealership and the Port Everglades administration office.

But it's not blatant fraud like this that has elections experts worried about possible voting mayhem come November. Rather, it's the re-registration of voters, where personal information such as someone's party affiliation, signature or address could have been changed without the person's knowledge.

"If they're submitting the names of dead people or Mickey Mouse, that will be caught," said Daniel A. Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida. "The more pernicious type of fraud is where they change the addresses of people already registered, so that when they go to vote, they'll be at the wrong precinct."

And unlike the rarer type of voter fraud that Republicans fret about, where ineligible voters cast a ballot, this type of fraud could turn away eligible voters, suppressing turnout.

If voters had their addresses switched by someone else to a location within the county where they are already registered, then they will have to fill out change-of-address forms on Election Day before being allowed to cast a ballot. This would add time at the polls, but generally wouldn't cause any further complications, Smith said.

If, however, voters had their addresses switched to a location outside the county from where are registered, then they will have to fill out a provisional ballot — a type of voting that had a rejection rate of 50 percent in 2008. It's a new requirement that Republican lawmakers passed last year that gives voters until 5 p.m. Nov. 8 to prove that they are eligible to vote, Smith said, an extra step that many won't take.

"We don't know if this was systemically done, where voters had their information changed across the state," Smith said. "That's the huge question right now, and we just don't know."

Today is the last day for voters to register for the Nov. 6 election. Through Monday, the Florida Division of Elections has received more than 1.3 million forms from third-party organizations of voters who registered for the first time or changed their information. Chris Cate, spokesman for the Division of Elections, said it's not clear from that total how many are new and how many are updates.

"But our biggest concern now is the change to an existing voter's registration information," Cate said.

Last week, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement launched a criminal investigation into the registration forms filed by Strategic Allied Consulting, a private vendor state Republicans hired to register voters.

It's not clear how many forms Strategic Allied Consulting filed on behalf of the Republicans, who fired the firm on Sept. 25 and filed an elections complaint against it. Company officials acknowledged they fired two employees for fraudulently filling out forms. A dozen counties flagged questionable registration forms filed for the Republican Party of Florida. Other counties, such as Hillsborough and Pinellas, say they haven't found suspicious forms, but are closely reviewing those submitted by Republicans for any irregularities.

Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher, who first notified law enforcement of the questionable forms on Sept. 18, said she is worried of possible fraud that hasn't been detected yet.

She estimated last week that of the 60,000 voter registration forms her office received since Aug. 1, about 37,000 were for address changes. The rest were for new voters or signature updates.

"If some of these forms included the type where they gave us your name and moved you from one house to another, you're not going to be able to vote," said Bucher, who already flagged 106 forms for law enforcement.

Bucher said her office is reviewing all the forms submitted by Strategic Allied Consulting in hopes of catching subtler types of fraud so that they might prevent any Election Day confusion.

Paul Lux, Okaloosa County's supervisor of elections, said his office has found about 36 applications that seemed questionable. He hopes there won't be any voters who will be unable to cast a ballot because of changes they didn't know about. He said his office flagged the applications filed by the RPOF that have a signature that doesn't match a previous one. Just in case any were missed, Lux said the canvassing board will review several signatures before throwing out a provisional ballot. And any updates will be getting extra scrutiny, he said.

"Was there registration fraud? Yes," Lux said. "Was there voter fraud? No.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected]

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