It's almost an article of faith in some progressive circles that the last two presidential elections were stolen. In 2000, of course, there were the hanging chads in Florida; in 2004, there were suspicions of voting-machine chicanery in Ohio. Already this year, allegations of Republican "vote caging" — sending mailers to foreclosed houses in Democratic precincts, then, after those mailers are returned to sender, using them as evidence that the voter doesn't live where records indicate he or she does, which means they might not be allowed to vote — are rampant in Ohio and Michigan.
And worries of voter disenfranchisement are ratcheting up in the Sunshine State as well. State elections offices have been deluged with voter registration forms — nearly 500,000 since January. The state, meanwhile, is asking local supervisors of elections for help processing these applications, even though the locals say they don't have the manpower to do it.
In the midst of this crush of new applicants, there's a new issue on the horizon, one that progressives fear the GOP could use to disenfranchise Hispanic, black and new voters across the state: the Republican secretary of state's recent decision to enforce the state's three-year-old "no match, no vote" law.
In 2005, citing dubious reports of voter fraud, the Republican-led Florida Legislature passed the measure, which requires new voters to submit their state identification or Social Security numbers to the state so they can be double-checked against databases to confirm the voter's identity. Under the law, if there is no match, the voter registration application is sent back to county elections officials, who then demand a photocopy of the would-be voter's ID. No ID, no vote.
Voting-rights advocates say the law will disproportionately affect minority and poor voters, especially those without a driver's license, who tend to cast votes for Democrats. No Match, No Vote went into effect Jan. 1, 2006, but the NAACP and other groups sought and received an injunction in late 2007. In December 2007, a federal judge agreed. But the state appealed — and on June 24, another federal judge sided with the state, and the law was back on.
But Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning, a Republican, announced that he wouldn't enforce it. He said he wanted to give local supervisors of elections the chance to upgrade their computer systems. On Sept. 8, however, he changed his mind.
Critics say the timing is suspicious. Browning's decision came less than a month before the state's Oct. 6 voter registration deadline, and voting-rights advocates say it might stop some new voters from casting their ballots. If unmatched voters can't get copies of their ID in before the election, they'll have to vote via provisional ballot. And if those copies aren't in two days after the election, their votes won't count.
Browning says the timing is irrelevant. "People want to make the timing a political issue and it's not," he says. "We chose not to implement it before the `Aug. 26` primary. It's just based on where we are in the elections process."
He also scoffs at the idea that the new law would disenfranchise minority voters: "Those applicants have as much time as any other voter."
Browning says No Match, No Vote is the only way to protect against voter fraud (though there's little empirical evidence to support the existence of that "problem"). He argues that under the new law, state officials will check for typos and misspellings and kick the application back to county elections supervisors only if the problem can't first be fixed at the state level.
"I don't know what else these people want," Browning says of his critics. "They will still get to vote. We're not in the business of keeping people off the rolls."
Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles doesn't anticipate any problems either. His biggest concern will be with unmatched voters who don't respond to requests for copies of their Social Security card or other identification. Even then, he says, they would be able to cast a provisional ballot on Election Day.
But casting a provisional ballot is by no means a surefire way of getting your vote counted. According to a Sept. 24 report by the Advancement Project, a civil-rights group that helped challenge Florida's no match, no vote law, in the 2006 general election 27 percent of the state's 14,550 provisional ballots were tossed out. In Orange County, 42 percent of those ballots weren't counted. Both of those numbers far exceed the national average of 21 percent.
That's part of what has voting-rights advocates worried. "Our concern is that tens of thousands of people who want to participate in the election will try to register in September and may not be able to get on the voter rolls," says Elizabeth Westfall, a senior attorney with the Advancement Project. "This may make some unable to participate."
Westfall says failed matches may be due to errors or misspellings on the part of clerks of court. She also says that blacks with untraditional name spellings and Hispanics with double last names could represent a disproportionate number of affected applicants.
More importantly, Westfall doubts that those affected will be notified within a sufficient amount of time to straighten out the problem before the election.
It may be especially problematic for mobile voters (those without fixed addresses or those between addresses), who may not receive the notice, and for poor voters, who may be unable to drive to the elections office to drop off a copy of their ID or lack access to e-mail or a fax machine.
"This really does not serve the purpose," Westfall says. "The secretary says it's designed to prevent fraud and ineligible people from getting on the rolls, but it just prevents eligible people from getting on the rolls."
For his part, Cowles stresses the importance of trying to get ID-related issues resolved as early as possible: "If a person receives notification from us, it's in their best interest to be in touch with us as soon as possible to get it cleared up. It's better than waiting until Election Day."[email protected]
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