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2 percent of Florida's vote can spark a battle

Four little words are generating a lot of noise in Florida. It's another sign of how high the stakes are this election year.

The words: "No match, no vote."

They refer to a state law requiring that to register to vote, a person's driver's license number or last four digits of a Social Security number must match numbers in a government database. The requirement took effect Sept. 8.

If there's no match, a county election supervisor must notify the would-be voter, who must rectify the problem by providing proof in person, by mail, fax or e-mail of a matching number. If proof is still lacking, the voter can cast a provisional ballot and has until two days after the election to clarify things.

Some matches fail because of typographical errors by clerks, or illegible handwriting by a would-be voter. The state insists it catches most of those by comparing the database with the scanned copy of the application form.

The Legislature passed the requirement in 2005. Most Republicans voted yes and nearly all 43 opponents were Democrats, the first sign that the exact-match rule was seen as a partisan act that could help Republicans and hurt Democrats.

The NAACP, Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition and others sued to strike down "no match, no vote" in 2007. They claimed poor and minority voters would be most affected.

The League of Women Voters notes that some African-Americans use nontraditional spellings of first names and some Hispanics use paternal and maternal last names.

They lost their lawsuit when U.S. District Judge Stephan Mickle refused to grant an injunction in June. Citing past absentee ballot fraud in Florida, the judge said the law "is justified by the state's compelling interest in fair and honest elections."

Mickle noted that over a 21-month period, the numbers matched in 98 percent of 1.5-million voter registration forms. Critics would argue a 2 percent no-match rate — about 31,000 — is plenty of disenfranchisement in a state where 537 votes once decided the presidency.

Having lost in court, the advocacy groups fault Secretary of State Kurt Browning for insisting the law be enforced less than two months before the election — too late to work out the bugs, his critics contend.

Common Cause issued a study on election laws in 10 swing states this week. The author faulted Florida's exact-match standard and said it amounts to vote suppression.

"To go back and try to prove your identity — how many people are going to take that step?" asked Tova Wang of the Century Foundation.

The talk frustrates Browning. He's careful not to accuse his critics of an agenda (to get Barack Obama elected) but the criticism is intensifying.

He heard it when he sat for TV interviews in Tampa and Orlando on Friday, and he may hear it Tuesday on NBC's Today show in a segment on election preparations in battleground states.

"I'm not anti-voter registration," Browning said. "All I'm saying is, complete the form legally, and you shouldn't have a problem."

The real test will come in October, as election supervisors process thousands of registration forms, many collected by third-party groups.

The registration deadline is Oct. 6.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

2 percent of Florida's vote can spark a battle 09/19/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 25, 2008 6:24pm]
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