By Joseph Tanfani, Matea Gold and Melanie Mason, Tribune Washington Bureau –
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 company, 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 company 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 company “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 Association 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 have 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.”
Strategic Allied told Palm Beach County officials that the suspicious forms found there could be traced to one worker, William T. Hazard of Boynton Beach, according to sources familiar with the investigation. Officials identified 106 forms submitted by Hazard. Most of those forms have problems, said Susan Bucher, supervisor of elections in Palm Beach County.
In a telephone interview Friday, Hazard, 50, denied he forged any applications and stressed that he never wrote on any of the forms he collected.
“I did nothing wrong,” said the former assistant auto parts manager, who lost his post at a Jaguar dealership about a year ago. He said he got the voter registration job after responding to a Craigslist ad placed by a company called PinPoint Staffing seeking people to do “voter surveys.” The ad specified that all applicants had to be registered Republicans and active voters.
Although he reported to a PinPoint Staffing office in West Palm Beach, he said, “I thought I was dealing with the Republican Party.”
Hazard said he was paid $12 an hour and not compensated for how many forms he turned in, so he said he would have no incentive to forge applications.
He said he was given “zero training.” His only instructions were to approach people and ask who they supported in the presidential election. When people answered with President Barack Obama, he said, he wished them a good day. If someone said Mitt Romney, he asked if they were registered to vote. If not, he handed them forms to fill out, he said.
“I’m expected to register Republicans,” said Hazard, who worked for the company from August until about two weeks ago, when he left over a pay dispute.
“I have nothing to hide,” he said. “They’re just finger-pointing, I’m sure.”
Strategic Allied’s faulty registrations were snared by legislation aggressively promoted by the company’s client, the Florida GOP, through an election law overhaul championed by Republicans in the state Legislature last year. The law required a unique identification number for every third-party group (including parties and other organizations) that sought to register voters. It was that number that was used to trace the potentially bogus forms to the Republican Party of Florida.
If fraudulent forms were inadvertently processed, they could create obstacles for voters at the polls. Poll workers can challenge voters if their signature is different than that on their registration. Voters could still cast a ballot if their address had been changed within the same county, but only once poll workers were able to establish that they were in the correct precinct.
“It’s another step the clerk, the poll worker and the voter would have to go through in order to cast a vote,” Davis said.
In Palm Beach County, besides the dealership, forms listed voters as living at a gas station on Miami Beach and a seaport administration building, Bucher said.
There have been isolated reports of registration irregularities in other states where Strategic Allied Consulting had been hired.
In Colorado, an attorney for the firm alerted the secretary of state’s office last week that an employee had torn up a completed voter registration form; the elections office sent that report to state prosecutors for investigation.
In Nevada, the secretary of state’s office is investigating a complaint from Gina Greisen, a Democrat and animal rights activist. Earlier this month, she said, she witnessed a man tear up a woman’s voter registration form that identified her as a Democrat and instruct her to fill out a new form without any party affiliation. Greisen said an employee from the Clark County Department of Elections said that torn form (which Greisen retrieved from the trash) was registered to Strategic Allied Consulting.
The Nevada secretary of state’s office said it does not confirm or deny ongoing investigations.