Saturday, November 18, 2017
Politics

Election experts begged lawmakers for new tool to fight voter fraud, but got nothing

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TALLAHASSEE — As President Donald J. Trump repeatedly makes unfounded claims of people having voted twice in the last election, Florida had an easy way to make it much less likely.

But the state Legislature did nothing.

Ignoring pleas from county election experts across the state, lawmakers ended the 2017 session last week without passing a law that would improve the reliability of voter rolls by making it easier to find voters who are registered to vote in Florida and another state or who are registered in Florida and died in another state.

"It's a shame, with all of the concern about the accuracy of the voter rolls," said Chris Chambless, supervisor of elections in Clay County and president of a statewide supervisors' association.

Their priority was a three-page bill to let Florida become the 21st state to join a national compact known as the Electronic Registration Information Center or ERIC.

The bill breezed through the House without opposition, then stalled and died in the Senate.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia already submit voter registration and motor vehicle data to ERIC.

In return, the member states get periodic reports, listing voters who have moved in or out or died and cases in which a voter may be registered in more than one county in the same state.

Personal identifying information, such as the last four digits of a voter's Social Security number, is made anonymous and then encrypted so that ERIC staff members know only the voter's assigned code, not the voter's actual identity .

ERIC says it identified more than 5 million voters in its 20 member states in the past four years who were registered in two states, moved within a state, were registered twice in the same state or remained on the voter rolls after they died.

It happens frequently. President Trump's chief White House strategist, Stephen Bannon, was registered to vote in New York and Florida for several months. On Nov. 7, he sent a letter to Sarasota County asking to be removed from that roll, the Washington Post reported.

Four other members of the president's inner circle also were found to be on two states' rolls at the same time.

They were Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner; Trump's youngest daughter Tiffany Trump; White House press secretary Sean Spicer; and Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin, the Post and CNN reported. None had a duplicate registration in Florida.

Trump issued an executive order last week that created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The order defines improper voting as "the act of an individual casting a ballot in multiple jurisdictions."

"You have people that are registered who are dead, who are illegals, who are in two states," Mr. Trump told ABC News in January. "They vote twice. There are millions of votes, in my opinion."

As a destination state with a transient population, Florida has among the highest rates of in-migration and out-migration of all 50 states. It's a place where many voters arrive and register to vote and stay on the rolls in their former home states.

A voter is not required by law to request to be removed from the voter rolls.

It is not a crime to be registered to vote in two states. It is a crime to cast more than one ballot in an election.

County election supervisors have been clamoring for Florida to join ERIC for years.

Scott's chief elections officer, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, was officially neutral on joining ERIC, and no visible opposition surfaced.

The price of joining ERIC was $75,000 — one-tenth the cost of many hometown pork-barrel projects that got into the budget now headed to Gov. Rick Scott's desk.

The House, by a vote of 116-0, passed the bill (HB 707), sponsored by Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover,

The Senate version (SB 1070), by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, breezed through two committees but died in its final stop, the Rules Committee.

That blocked it from getting to the full Senate for a vote, even though a Senate staff analysis of the bill noted: "It is important to identify voters registered in multiple jurisdictions."

The Rules panel was told to hear 65 bills in two meetings in the next-to-last week of the session, and many others also were not considered, as high-profile issues and contentious budget talks dominated attention.

"There was not a whole lot of interest in doing a lot on elections," said a supporter, Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, chairman of the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee.

The bill's collapse raises an age-old question of time management by a Legislature that copes with hundreds of issues in a highly-compressed, 60-day session.

Lawmakers found plenty of time to debate a bill — pushed by lobbyists — to let Walmart and other big-box stores sell hard liquor. They also discussed at length whether to allow more specialty license tags — including one for Auburn University alumni.

"It's very disappointing," said Donald Palmer, a former Florida elections official and a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank that follows election laws across the U.S. "In Florida, it's still hard to get these issues on the radar screen. Florida just can't seem to focus on this issue."

ERIC's member states include Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

The nation's other two largest states, California and Texas, are not members.

Florida's participation would put pressure on them to join, too, and would enhance ERIC's credibility as a voting resource.

"Florida almost came on board," Palmer said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] Follow @stevebousquet.

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