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Some new voters will be shut out under "no match, no vote" law

TALLAHASSEE — More voters than ever are expected at Florida polls Nov. 4, but a newly enforced state law could thwart thousands from having their vote count.

State election officials have notified more than 800 people in the Tampa Bay area and a total of 10,400 statewide who recently signed up to vote that they aren't yet qualified because of discrepancies between their signup forms and state records.

The would-be voters must clear up the discrepancies or their vote on Election Day won't count.

The state's "no match, no vote" law, enforced for roughly a month, has ensnared people like Eckerd College senior Brittany Reynolds.

The 20-year-old art major said she is so busy she could barely glance at the letter she got this week, let alone fax a photocopy of her driver's license to the Pinellas County elections office.

"It's a real bummer," Reynolds said. "I did want to be a part of the election."

The law was passed by the Republican-led 2005 Legislature over Democratic objections. It requires the driver's license number or last four digits of a Social Security number written on new voter registration applications to match numbers in a government database.

But criticism of the law has taken on new meaning in an election year that features the country's first black mainstream party presidential nominee and unprecedented voter registration efforts, particularly by Democrats.

Critics, who sued to block the law in federal court shortly after it passed, contend that the system unfairly targets Hispanics because they often use two surnames, which can cause confusion and a mismatch in the state's voter database.

But a federal judge recently upheld the law. And after Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning issued orders to implement the law, the controversy that has only grown.

The Florida Democratic Party unsuccessfully petitioned Republican Gov. Charlie Crist to suspend the law until after the election.

Now criticism is rising among some county election supervisors, who are elected by local voters. They think Browning, a former Republican elections supervisor in Pasco County, issued orders that don't provide enough latitude to ensure the widest voter participation.

"I think the state has gone way beyond the intent of the law," Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, a Republican, said Friday in a tense conference call with Browning.

Browning has said the law requires voters to clear up discrepancies in an elections office with election employees to create a paper "audit trail." Voters who haven't done so before Election Day can cast provisional ballots at the polls, but the ballot is only counted if the voter resolves the discrepancy within two days.

"I have concerns about uniformity," Browning said Friday.

Clark wants Pinellas poll workers to try to resolve any matching issues at the precinct or at early voting sites so those people can avoid having to cast provisional ballots.

• • •

Despite the emotion, the law has snared a fraction of the 229,000 people who registered since Sept. 8 when the law began being enforced. They are a subset of more than 800,000 newly registered voters this year. The Florida Democratic Party claims 360,00 of those registered as Democrats, compared to 190,000 who registered Republican. All told, more than 11-million Floridians are now registered to vote.

As of Oct. 3, the Division of Elections had identified 32,847 people whose information did not match official databases. In many cases, the state was able to resolve the discrepancy without contacting them, leaving 10,422 in limbo.

And nearly 3,000 of those have been corrected, putting the unresolved figure at about 7,400 as of Oct. 3 About 800 of cases are in the Tampa Bay area, according to figures provided to the St. Petersburg Times:

• In Hillsborough, 483 letters have been mailed to voters through Oct. 3 — 242 to Democrats, 45 to Republicans and 196 with no party affiliation.

• In Pinellas, 266 letters have been mailed, compared with the 8,012 new voter registrations since Sept. 8, when Browning said the law should be enforced.

• In Pasco, 28 letters have been mailed as of Oct. 1, compared to the 8,856 registrations filed since Sept. 8.

• In Hernando, 25 letters were mailed compared to 1,584 applications.

Craig Morse, a 53-year-old dog treat maker in Largo, said the mistake was his. "When I wrote down my driver's license number, I put a zero instead of a 1."

He said he made a photocopy of his license, mailed it in and is now ready to vote, possibly as early as Oct. 20, when early voting starts.

"I'm leaning toward McCain," Morse said. "But I know Obama is going to win," he added, referring to Republican Sen. John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. "This economy is so up in the air, and everybody wants a change."

Reynolds, the college student, thought she was shut out. But she isn't.

"Awesome," Reynolds said when told how she could still qualify to vote. "I'll have to see what classes I have on Election Day, but I'd love to vote."

Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Kim Wilmath and news researcher Emily Rieman contributed to this report.

Some new voters will be shut out under "no match, no vote" law 10/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 13, 2008 3:34pm]
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