U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, right, speaks to a crowd of supporters during a campaign… (Heather Leiphart / AP Photo/The…)
WASHINGTON — Election officials in at least 11 Florida counties have uncovered potentially fraudulent voter registration forms submitted on behalf of the state GOP, a debacle that has punctured a hole in the Republican National Committee's get-out-the-vote operation less than six weeks before election day.
By Friday, elections supervisors had found dozens of forms turned in by the party that had wrong birthdays or spellings of names that didn't match signatures. In other cases, multiple forms were filled out in the same handwriting. One voter in Palm Beach County was registered to an address that is a Land Rover dealership.
"It was that flagrant," said Ann W. Bodenstein, the elections supervisor in Santa Rosa County, where officials found 100 problematic applications — including one for a dead voter. "In no way did they look genuine."
The controversy comes at an odd time for the GOP. Republican lawmakers across the country have proposed or enacted tough voter ID laws, arguing the legislation is needed to combat voter fraud. Democrats are battling the laws in the courts and say they are designed to discourage Democratic constituencies, such as African Americans, from voting.
The Florida GOP had contracted out its registration efforts to a newly formed company called Strategic Allied Consulting. The RNC had urged party organizations in seven swing states to hire the firm, directing at least $3.1 million in payments to it.
The RNC and its state affiliates hastily cut ties with Strategic Allied Consulting when the first questionable forms were discovered in Palm Beach County. On Thursday, the Republican Party of Florida, which paid at least $1.3 million for the voter registration work, filed a complaint of voter fraud against the firm. And the state Division of Elections turned over the problematic forms to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Strategic Allied is run by an Arizona-based consultant and Republican Party activist named Nathan Sproul, who has been dogged by charges in the past that his employees destroyed Democratic registration forms. No charges were ever filed. But his reputation is such that Sproul said RNC officials requested that he set up a new firm so the party would not be publicly linked to the past allegations. The firm was set up at a Virginia address, and Sproul does not show up on the corporate paperwork.
Sean Spicer, an RNC spokesman, disputed Sproul's contention. "To my knowledge, no one requested that," he said.
Spicer said the national party evaluated several proposals and carefully reviewed records of past investigations of Sproul's work, determining there was no evidence of wrongdoing. "After looking at the additional quality-control measures he put in place, we had no problems using his firm," Spicer said.
Along with its voter-registration work, Strategic Allied had been hired to do door-to-door voter outreach in Wisconsin and Ohio, efforts that have now been called off. Spicer said losing the firm "is not going to have any effect on our ground game."
In a statement released Friday, Sproul said his company hired more than 2,000 people to do voter registration in Florida and thousands more nationwide. He said the questionable forms were the work of just a few individuals.
"The reason we have quality-control measures in place is because we recognize that with projects this large, there will be isolated incidents of individuals trying to cheat the system," he wrote.
Florida elections officials said they would have to scramble to clean up their registration books before election day.
"I don't think we've ever had this number of counties that have had this number of cases all at the same time," said Vicki Davis, president of the Florida State Assn. of Supervisors of Elections.
Davis said she had heard from elections officials in Lee, Bay, Clay, Santa Rosa, Escambia and Okaloosa counties who had also identified problematic voter registration forms turned in by the Florida GOP. Chris Cate, spokesman for the state elections division, said possibly fraudulent forms had also been reported in Charlotte, Walton, Miami-Dade and Duval counties.
The state GOP turned in 45,917 voter registration forms, according to the state elections website.
The way the forms were filled out — and the fact many were missing key pieces of information — immediately caught the attention of elections officials.
"It's a gut feeling," said Beth Fleet, director of candidates in Duval County, which found about two dozen suspicious forms. "You put several side by side and see the handwriting and the way the forms are filled out, and it looks like it may have been the same person doing it."