kurt-browning_web.jpgWhen Secretary of State Kurt Browning notified Florida’s 67 elections supervisors on Sept. 8 that they should begin enforcing a controversial 2006 law requiring that information provided by registered voters match the data in a state or federal database, Elizabeth Collins’ phone started ringing.

Collins, a Democratic committeewoman and Miami-Dade Democratic Executive Committee member who was a Barack Obama delegate to the August Democratic National Convention, said she began receiving calls and emails from voters unclear about the law, including some who had received erroneous emails stating that voters whose ID failed to match a state database on Election Day would be turned away from the polls.

“I started doing some investigation,” Collins said. She also sent emails to the state party and the Obama campaign.

“When [Browning] announced it, they didn’t really explain what it meant and there was a lot of hysteria.”

The Voter Registration Verification Law, which has become known through a series of emails – many of them bogus – as “no match, no vote,” had been in effect from 2006 until December 2007, when a coalition of civil rights groups won a temporary injunction from a federal judge, while the groups pressed their case that the law discriminates against minorities. Black and Latino registrants often have hyphenated or nontraditional last names that lend themselves to typographical errors in the databases.

The plaintiffs: the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, the Haitian Grassroots Coalition and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, were represented by the Washington D.C.-based Advancement Project, which said the litigation is ongoing, though the injunction was lifted and enforcement reinstated in July.

The verification rules apply to voter registration applications received after Sept. 8, according to a press release issued by Browning’s office on Sept. 18.

The law, which was passed by the Republican majority in the state Legislature, ostensibly to prevent voter fraud, requires that at the time of registration, would-be voters provide a Florida driver’s license number or other state-issued ID, or the last four digits of their social security number. The identification numbers are crosschecked against the Florida driver’s license or federal Social Security Administration databases.

If the numbers don’t match, and manual reviews for typographical errors don’t produce a match, the applicant is supposed to be notified and given the opportunity to provide a photocopy of their identification, or to show their ID in person. Otherwise, they will have to vote on a provisional ballot on Election Day. Even then, voters will have two days to provide the information required to count their ballot. Contrary to a series of misinformation emails sent out on or after Sept. 8, the law does not require a voter’s ID to match up with a database at their polling place, where it is used for identification purposes only.

In the release, Browning’s office stated that the law “does not keep any person with an unverified number from being able to vote. This law is about verifying identity at the time of registration, so that when the voter goes to the polls the voter can vote a regular ballot, not a provisional ballot.” The release also denied that the law targets “specific groups.”

Attorney Elizabeth Westfall, deputy director of the Advancement Project’s voter protection program, said that whatever its intent, the law has a potential to disenfranchise voters.

“The issue we have with the law is that it prevents eligible applicants under Florida law – people who are citizens, who are over 18… from registering to vote, for reasons that have nothing to do with their eligibility,” Westfall said. “It could be a typo, [or] an error made by someone entering data in the Social Security database,”said Westfall, adding that local
elections supervisors could wind up inundated with “no match” voters.

As for election fraud, Westfall said there is no evidence of it being a problem in the state.

“This is a law that’s a solution looking for a problem,” she said. “There is absolutely no need for this law.”

Muslima Lewis, an attorney who directs the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice and Voting Rights projects, says her office was also deluged with emails following the Browning announcement.

“I became concerned that people would be deterred form registering or from going at and voting based on the (erroneous) emails,” Lewis said. “That’s what prompted me to put together an email fact sheet.”

Lewis reached out to the Advancement Project to co-author an online campaign informing voters about their rights.

“We wanted to explain how people could be sure that their voter registrations were submitted in a way that they won’t have any problems getting registered to vote,” Lewis said.

Still, suspicions about the law, and about the integrity of the upcoming election, have been stoked by emails claiming voters could be turned away form the polls because of Voter
ID, or even if they arrived at the polls wearing Barack Obama T-shirts. Voters will not be turned away from the polls simply for wearing Obama T-shirts or other Obama paraphernalia.

Jennifer Davis, a spokeswoman for Browning’s office, said the Secretary of State didn’t anticipate the melee.

“People can disagree with [the law] if they choose, but I don’t think that we could have predicted how many false statements would be made about it.”

Davis said her office talked to both presidential campaigns, and that both the Obama and John McCain camps were doing their best to clarify the law to their supporters. As for the
bogus emails,  Davis said, “we have no idea who is sending them out.”

Davis also denied that the law would disproportionately disenfranchise minorities.

“Absolutely not,” she said. “The constitutional challenge of the law, and the Department of Justice Review specifically looked at that issue, and both found that for those arguments (by the NAACP and others), there was no evidence to support them.”

Still, suspicions run deep, particularly in the African-American community, where memories of the 2000 election, in which the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found instances of voter disenfranchisement, are still fresh for some.

Collins said that even before Sept. 8, her son and daughter, ages 40 and 33, respectively, were surprised when they sent out absentee ballot requests for the Aug. 26 primary.

“My son got a letter from the [Miami-Dade] Elections office saying that he needed to put the last four digits of his social security number on the form, even though he had already filled in his driver’s license. My daughter got a letter stating that she needed to sign a photocopy of the application, because they said her signature didn’t match. And they have been voting for years.”

Collins advised her son and daughter not to respond to the letters, but to register to vote all over again.

“And then I went online and checked to make sure I was still registered,” she said.

Collins said her son and daughter also verified their registrations online.

Citing suspicious voter registration applications sent to her ailing mother, who has not voted, and to her late husband, who died in 1998, Collins said voters need to be vigilant about unknown groups whose goal seems to be keeping voters from the polls.

“Because I’ve been so involved, and I’m trying to get so many other people registered, for this to happen in my own home?” she said.

As for the 16,000 Floridians allegedly flagged for removal from the rolls by the Voter ID law in 2006 and 2007, Davis said nearly all were placed back on the rolls following the
December 2007 court ruling. She added that voters should put past electoral suspicions behind them.

“Secretary of State Browning has been an elections supervisor for 26 years. He knows how to run an election,” she said. “[The election in] 2000 was eight years ago and we’re past it. Florida is now seen as a leader in election reform.”

JoyannReid@Gmail.com

Photo: Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning



FOR MORE INFORMATION

American Civil Liberties Union: www.aclu.org

To check your voter registration status, contact your supervisor of elections office:

In Miami-Dade: Miamidade.gov/elections

In Broward: Browardsoe.org