TALLAHASSEE — With less than a week before the deadline to register to vote in the November election, Republican state leaders who had made voter fraud a top issue are offering little insight into how they are handling the increasing numbers of suspicious registration forms being found throughout Florida.
Last week, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement began a review of Strategic Allied Consulting after the company turned in more than 100 botched voter registration forms in Palm Beach County on behalf of the Republican Party of Florida. Subsequently, 10 other counties — Bay, Charlotte, Duval, Escambia, Lee, Okaloosa, Pasco, Miami-Dade, Santa Rosa and Walton — have reported similar issues with registration forms linked to that firm.
Officials with the Manatee County elections office and the local GOP said last week the firm was not involved in voter registration efforts in Manatee.
On Monday, a top elections official announced that the FDLE was investigating a second group, the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic civil rights organization in the United States, for turning in three questionable registration forms in Miami-Dade County.
The two cases, so far at least, are hardly equal in magnitude.
While the Strategic Allied Consulting case has received national attention, a spokesman for Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner said he didn't know about the La Raza case until Monday — even though both cases were filed with the FDLE on Friday.
"It truly is a coincidence," said Chris Cate of the only two reported cases of voter registration fraud in the past several months.
Miami-Dade election officials flagged three registration forms on Sept. 12 and emailed them to the secretary of state's office. Christina White, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade office, said the forms had similar handwriting for three different people, which is always a warning sign.
Cate said it took the Division of Elections until Friday to send the complaint to the FDLE. Asked if the filing of the La Raza complaint was timed to match the other, Cate replied: "Absolutely not, that's absolutely ridiculous."
A spokesman for the nonprofit, nonpartisan La Raza said she didn't know anything about the complaint until a Times/Herald reporter told her about it Monday night. "Thanks for telling us," Camila Gallardo said. "This is news to us."
Both groups have filed a hefty number of forms. La Raza is second in the state in number of forms filed, with 46,639, making it virtually tied with the Republican Party of Florida, which has registered 46,352 through Monday. But there have been far more problems with the RPOF's forms, which have mostly been filled out by Strategic Allied Consulting.
Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher said she is getting no direction from state officials as to how to proceed in checking the other forms filed by Strategic Allied Consulting, which was fired last week.
In the past 45 days, Palm Beach County has logged 15,000 new voters. Since Aug. 1, more than 60,000 registration forms were filed, many for changes of address or updating signatures. Bucher said she doesn't know how many of those forms, now stored in a warehouse, were filled out by Strategic Allied Consulting.
"We're not sure if we need to go back and check," Bucher said Monday. "Obviously, it causes us great concern." Bucher was hoping to find out Monday if the state was going to instruct the counties with questionable forms to adopt a uniform method to review all forms filed by the firm.
Cate deferred the issue to FDLE, saying it was up to that agency to determine the scope of any review of forms filed by the Glen Allen, Va.-based firm. Other than a broader review, Cate said supervisors should be more vigilant.
Cate's boss, Detzner, has yet to speak publicly on the issue. On Monday, Detzner was in St. Augustine attending a meeting on Florida's 500th anniversary, which is next year.
Gov. Rick Scott has yet to speak publicly on the matter, too. When his office was asked by the Times/Herald why he hadn't spoken about the case, a spokeswoman replied by email.
"The Republican Party of Florida did the right thing by quickly firing the company connected to faulty voter registration forms in Florida and other states across the country," said the email from Jackie Schutz. "That company has also been referred to FDLE for a criminal investigation. We have zero tolerance for any illegal voting activity in Florida."
When asked if Scott actually said this, Schutz emailed back: "Please attribute to the governor."
Just how many registration forms are flawed is still unclear. Counties like Bay, Walton and Escambia report a handful of flawed forms. Miami-Dade is reporting at least eight questionable applications. Palm Beach and Santa Rosa counties said there were more than 100 forms that raised questions in their counties.
"It was someone in a hurry to make a buck," said Ann Bodenstein, Santa Rosa's supervisor of elections. She said the forms in her county appear to have been filled out by different people. Many were blatantly incorrect, including one that was signed recently for a 19-year-old who died six months ago.