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New voter registration law snares mostly minorities

TALLAHASSEE — Hispanics and blacks account for more than half of the people in Florida whose voter registration forms were rejected in recent weeks under the state's controversial new voter verification law.

Democrats were four times as likely to be tripped up by the law as Republicans, and more than half of the people affected are 30 years old or younger. One of every four unmatched voters lives in Miami-Dade, the state's largest county and the one with the largest Hispanic population.

Between Sept. 8, when the law took effect, and Oct. 10, a total of 8,867 people were placed in a separate database, their voting status in limbo for the moment, according to state records released Thursday.

They are a subset of the 376,450 new registrations submitted statewide since Sept. 8.

Of the rejected registrations, 2,403, or 27 percent, said they were Hispanic; 2,382, or 27 percent, identified themselves as African-American; and 1,727 listed their race as white.

A total of 1,902 did not disclose their race.

Nearly half, 4,383, were Democrats, while 1,136 were Republicans. Most of the rest identified with no party.

The state released the database to news organizations and advocacy groups that sought it under Florida's public records laws.

The law, labeled as "no match, no vote" by its critics, was enacted by the Legislature three years ago, suspended during a lengthy lawsuit and implemented Sept. 8 after a federal judge upheld the law.

The law requires that new voters provide a driver's license number or the last four digits of a Social Security number on a registration form, which is cross-checked against government databases. If the numbers or the name doesn't match, the voter is placed in limbo while county elections supervisors resolve the discrepancies.

The racial and ethnic composition of the first "no match" list came as no surprise to a lawyer who was involved in the challenge, a case known as Florida NAACP vs. Browning.

"Just as when the law was initially enforced, it has a wildly disproportional effect on black and Latino voters," said Adam Skaggs of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, which represented black and Haitian political groups in an unsuccessful lawsuit to strike down the law. "This is no surprise."

Advocates say black and Hispanic voters experience higher error rates because they use hyphenated surnames or first names with nontraditional spellings.

Skaggs said there's no reason to conclude that the law targets people according to party affiliation, other than the possibility that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to register as Democrats.

Elections officials expect about 70 percent of the discrepancies will be resolved before next month's election because they are the result of clerical or typographical errors, or conflicts with names.

Secretary of State Kurt Browning told the governor and Cabinet on Tuesday that the law is necessary to maintain the integrity of the state's voter file. At the same time, he said, it is his agency's policy "to err on the side of the voter."

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

New voter registration law snares mostly minorities 10/16/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 20, 2008 4:45pm]

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