10/09/2012 11:11 am ET Updated Oct 09, 2012

Voter Registration Investigations Target Latino Civil Rights Group

On the final day of the race to register voters in 16 states and the District of Columbia, Florida is reviewing a crop of complaints involving alleged voter registration irregularities, across the political spectrum.

Formal complaints have been filed against both the Florida Republican and Democratic Parties and two nonpartisan outside organizations working to register voters in the state. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has launched investigations.

Voters in Florida and the other 15 states and D.C. who want to cast their ballots on Election Day Nov. 6 must register by end of day Tuesday. While Florida in particular has a sizable Latino population, nationally, nearly 12 million Latino adults are eligible but not registered to vote. And now, the nation's largest Latino civil rights organization -- one of the outside groups that has been working steadily to get out the vote by the registration deadline -- is questioning the substance and true purpose of the complaints filed against the group in Florida.

“The Florida secretary of state clearly had the time to provide information about the situation to the press, in one case after hours, but not to us,” said Clarissa Martínez De Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), one of the organizations against which complaints have been filed.

“You do have to wonder if the goal is to somehow call our work into question and leave that hanging out there over a critical three-day weekend or to really protect the voter rolls,” Martínez said.

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, a Republican, has been a vocal proponent of initiatives that have scrutinized the citizenship of thousands of mostly Latino and black Florida voters this year. Detzner has said he is trying to protect and defend the integrity of elections in Florida. Voting rights groups and Democrats have accused Detzner of working to disqualify or simply confound eligible voters of color who have historically been less likely to support Republican candidates.

But last week, Detzner’s office referred a complaint against Strategic Allied Consulting, a company hired by the Republican Party to register voters in Florida and several other battleground states, to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, a state police agency. In Florida, the company has been accused of filing over 100 allegedly falsified voter registration forms in 11 counties, the Palm Beach Post, a local newspaper, reported.

The founder of Strategic Allied Consulting has also been accused in other states of instructing canvassers to rip up forms belonging to people who want to register as Democrats, failing to submit some forms for processing and refusing to pay workers for registrations that bring Democrats onto voter rolls, the Palm Beach Post reported. The Republican Party in Florida and several other states have cut ties with the firm.

Last Monday afternoon, a Tampa-area newspaper reporter called Detzner’s office to check on the status of allegations against Strategic Allied Consulting, according to Martínez of NCLR. During that call, the reporter was told that the state had just filed a complaint against NCLR, and the organization only learned about the investigation when the reporter called for comment, she said.

By Tuesday Oct. 2 NCLR staff in Florida had learned that Miami-Dade County election officials were concerned that the signatures on two voter registration forms were suspiciously similar.

But as NCLR dug into the matter and gathered information to share with investigators, it found that the two forms had, in fact, been approved and processed, Martínez said. According to Martínez, the allegedly suspicious signatures belong to a pair of brothers who are registered to vote and look nothing like the handwriting of the NCLR canvasser who helped the brothers complete the forms.

The state has an obligation to initiate investigations where it appears laws may have been broken, said Chris Cate, a spokesman for the Florida secretary of state’s office. The office referred the complaints to state law enforcement officials when it had the information necessary to do so, Cate said -- there is no conspiracy.

Then the evening of Friday Oct. 5, an Associated Press reporter contacted NCLR for comment on a second complaint filed against the organization, as well as complaints filed against the state Democratic Party and another outside group, The Florida New Majority.

NCLR has been unable to gather any information about a suspect form or forms in the second complaint, Martínez said. Cates said that the state is trying to sort out what information can be made public.

NCLR has worked to register voters in Florida since 2002. This year, the organization is doing similar work in North Carolina, Texas, California and other states, from voter town halls to education sessions. NCLR estimates that when the rolls close today for the November election, the organization will be responsible for 90,000 mostly new voter registrations.

NCLR pays its canvassers a flat rate and does not offer incentives to register a specific number or type of voters, Martínez said. Its system also includes a number of quality controls, she described, including random calls from data entry clerks to verify that the person listed talked with an NCLR canvasser and wanted to register to vote.

Said Martínez, “We are not some kind of fly by night, register voters at any cost, partisan operation."



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