Monday, November 20, 2017
Politics

Firm fired over Palm Beach voter registrations had issues in other counties, states

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TALLAHASSEE — A vendor fired by the Republican Party of Florida for submitting questionable voter registrations forms in Palm Beach County is also responsible for filing potentially hundreds of flawed applications in at least eight other counties, election officials confirmed Friday.

Virginia-based Strategic Allied Consulting fell out of favor with Florida Republicans after Palm Beach County flagged 106 registration forms that had signature irregularities or incorrect information for voters already on file, such as new dates of birth and faulty Social Security numbers. Some of the forms in question attempted to change a voter's address but violated state law by using business locations, such as the Port Everglades administration office, a gas station and a Land Rover dealership.

After problems in Palm Beach County emerged, Florida counties from Miami to the Panhandle reported similar irregularities with voter registration forms that all tracked back to the Republican Party of Florida.

"It's sad," said Ann Bodenstein, Santa Rosa County's supervisor of elections. "Most people who fill out registration forms are so precise that they get everything in the right block. These just didn't look that way."

Chris Cate, spokesman for the Florida Division of Elections, said Friday that in addition to Palm Beach, complaints are being investigated in eight other counties: Charlotte, Duval, Escambia, Lee, Miami-Dade, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton.

Cate also confirmed that the Republican Party of Florida made the unusual move on Thursday of filing an election fraud complaint against Strategic Allied Consulting, its former vendor, for submitting voter applications with false information and voter signatures. While it led the charge to impose strict new regulations on outside groups that register new voters, the state party now claims it is the victim of fraud by a company that until last week was its highest paid vendor.

The RPOF complaint and the findings in the nine counties have been referred to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for investigation, Cate said. 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.

When reached for comment, state party leaders referred to a prepared statement by Mike Grissom, the state party's executive director.

"We immediately informed the Republican National Committee that we were terminating the contract with the voter registration vendor we hired at their request because there is no place for voter registration fraud in Florida," he said.

In North Carolina, Colorado and Virginia — all swing states where Strategic Allied Consulting had been awarded lucrative contracts to register voters — the state Republican Party cut ties with the firm after learning of the issues in Florida.

All of the states had the Republican National Committee pay for the voter registration efforts. The RNC, which paid the firm $2.9 million this year according to elections records, also canceled its contract. Strategic Allied Consulting was the only vendor the RNC hired to register voters.

"We have zero tolerance for any threat to the integrity of elections," RNC communications director Sean Spicer said in a prepared statement.

It's not yet clear if the firm has been involved in similar voter registration irregularities in states besides Florida. Elections officials in North Carolina and Colorado said Friday that there haven't been any reported problems.

Strategic Allied Consulting was formed in June by Nathan Sproul. He owns another company, Tempe, Ariz.-based Lincoln Strategy Group, which received about $70,000 by Romney for President Inc. Sproul couldn't be reached, but an attorney for the firm, Fred Petti, said one employee filled out all the flawed applications in Palm Beach County. He said that employee, whom he would not name, was fired last week.

"I'm speculating that the guy is probably lazy and that he's not working hard," Petti said when asked how the registration forms were filled out incorrectly. "He probably just got a phone book and copied down some names."

Asked about problems with other counties, Petti said he hasn't reviewed the forms and couldn't comment. The employee who was fired worked only in Palm Beach, so other employees would have had to filled out the other flagged applications.

Sproul is a Republican consultant and former Christian Coalition operative who has been investigated in the past for voter fraud in other states. Petti said those investigations turned up no evidence of fraud.

In Florida, Santa Rosa officials flagged more than 100 forms this week, according to Bodenstein. She said the problems ranged from birth dates and Social Security numbers not being included, to signatures that didn't match the spelling of the names printed on the forms.

Bodenstein and Escambia Supervisor of Elections David Stafford, both elected in 2004, said this many questionable registration forms is unprecedented.

"From a single source, I haven't seen this many before," Stafford said, adding that the state attorney's office is reviewing about a dozen forms that he set aside.

Miami-Dade elections officials said they noticed similar handwriting in voter registration applications that were turned in by the Republican Party of Florida, as well as other entities. All the forms in question where sent to the Florida Division of Elections for review. The deadline to register for the Nov. 6 election is Oct. 9.

Okaloosa and Pasco county officials also confirmed to the Times/Herald that they've found irregularities with forms stamped with the Republican Party of Florida's identification number, 11-93.

"We saw an inordinate amount of incomplete forms," said Paul Lux, Okaloosa County's supervisor of elections, who said his office flagged about a dozen this week. Lux said he called the Okaloosa Republican Party when he started seeing the forms, because he was alarmed at how sloppy they were. He was told that it was a vendor, which was paying staffers by the number of people they registered.

"I said, 'Oh my God, this isn't going to end well,' " he said. "Any time you pay people by volume, you're going to get this problem."

Because RNC and RPOF officials wouldn't comment on the specifics of the contract with Strategic Allied Consulting, it's unclear how employees registering voters were paid.

Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said Friday that his office turned over three registration forms to law enforcement in June, but it's not clear if Strategic Allied Consulting filed these forms. However, they did have the 11-93 ID number. Pinellas County officials said they have found no irregularities involving registration forms. Hillsborough County officials said they won't know until Monday.

The ability of officials to track back registration applications to their source is an ironic twist to an election year that has been dominated by talk of voter fraud.

Republicans in the Florida Legislature, inspired by successful Democratic registration drives by groups like ACORN that they likened to fraud, pushed through a controversial and sweeping elections law during the 2011 session.

The law required third-party organizations to register with the state and created a database that would help track new registration forms back to the group that submitted them. The bill also limited the amount of days that can be used for early voting, required people who change their address at the polls to use provisional ballots and required third-party groups to turn in registration forms within 48 hours or face hefty fines.

Republicans argued the bill was needed to reduce voter fraud, even though there was scant evidence of any in Florida.

A host of lawsuits were filed in response to the new elections law, although most of the provisions have been upheld. One that didn't stick: the 48-hour registration requirement.

"Before that law, there would be no way to know where these voter registrations were coming from," Cate said.

Times staff researcher Carolyn Edds and Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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