TALLAHASSEE — Representatives with three left-leaning voter groups suddenly facing allegations of voter registration wrongdoing say Florida elections officials are diverting attention from a criminal investigation into suspicious applications filed on behalf of the Republican Party of Florida by trumping up accusations against them.
Florida Division of Elections spokesman Chris Cate told reporters last week that forms filed by the state Democratic Party, the Florida New Majority Education Fund and the National Council of La Raza involved "potential irregular voter registration activities" that "constituted a legally sufficient complaint of voter registration fraud."
Representatives for all three deny fraud took place and say the state has yet to contact them about the allegations.
"It certainly doesn't pass the smell test that this information was released to the press before the party was ever notified," said Florida Democratic Party spokeswoman Brannon Jordan. "Both the timing and release of this information appears highly political."
The allegations were announced two days after the FDLE launched a criminal investigation into voter applications filed by Strategic Allied Consulting, a private firm hired by the RPOF to register voters. Hundreds of questionable registration forms have been found in a dozen counties, spanning from South Florida to the Panhandle. Republicans, who had made voter fraud a top campaign issue, reacted swiftly by firing the firm and filing an elections complaint against it.
They've also responded by filing dubious allegations against other groups, said Rebecca Wakefield, spokeswoman for the Education Fund, a nonpartisan group that aims to increase voter registration among under-represented groups.
"It's clear to us that this was all about timing," Wakefield said. "It's a distraction from the Republican case which made such big national news a few days before. This is all about Florida politics."
La Raza spokeswoman Camila Gallardo said her group had registered more than 50,000 voters since March with no complaints. She said it wasn't until the final week before the Oct. 8 registration deadline that her group, the largest Hispanic civil rights organization in the United States, was hit with two fraud allegations.
"We've never spoken to anyone from the state about it," Gallardo said. "What's the purpose of just reporting it to the media, other than to sensationalize it, if you don't talk to the groups who can get to the bottom of it? We're confused."
Cate said the cases were referred to the FDLE and that he could provide no further details because they are open investigations. General, not specific, information about the nature of the allegations was released to reporters, he said, but only those who asked for other cases involving voter registration fraud in the wake of the RPOF case.
"We were only answering media requests," he said.
Cate and his boss, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, say strict protocol, not politics, determines which cases get referred to the FDLE. As of Friday, the agency hadn't decided if it will launch a criminal inquiry into the voter registration drives conducted by the three groups.
The way Detzner describes it, the process of determining which allegations should be referred to law enforcement is a simple one, but left mainly to the judgment of himself and his attorney.
"(Staff Attorney Bennett Miller) will do his background of the case, then he'll bring it back to me for review and I'll decide," he said. "There is no time frame typically. He has to do his own due diligence. Partisan politics play no role in evaluating a case."
It took a day to refer the Oct. 4 complaints against the Education Fund and the Florida Democratic Party to the FDLE. It took two days to refer a La Raza complaint to the FDLE.
Yet it took 16 days for an earlier case against La Raza to be sent to the FDLE. It wasn't announced until after the RPOF case was already reported.
As for that RPOF case, it took longer to get reported and referred to the FDLE.
Lee County's voter registration director first saw suspicious forms filed by a vendor on behalf of RPOF in late August. She didn't notify the state of the forms until Sept. 20. It wasn't publicly known that Lee County had any issues with RPOF forms until a wider fraud case involving the same vendor was reported by media Sept. 28.
"I would have liked to have heard about that sooner," said Susan Bucher, Palm Beach County's supervisor of elections, who discovered flawed RPOF forms in her county on Sept. 18 and helped spark the investigation.
Submitting false voter registration information is a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.
"There's not going to be a singular reason as to when cases are reviewed," Cate said. "Every case is different. The people reviewing it, I don't know what their schedules are."
Wakefield and Gallardo say their organizations follow strict procedures to prevent filing incomplete, incorrect or fraudulent forms.
"We went over all of our processes and asked, 'Do we have any problems we don't know about?' We couldn't come up with anything," Wakefield said. "We know the scrutiny is really high, but anyone can file a complaint. Doesn't mean it's valid. That's why we want to know what it is."