In Florida, Registering Voters A Whole New Game

May 14, 2012
Originally published on May 14, 2012 6:05 am

Six months before the presidential election, the Florida ground game is already under way.

In political terms, the ground game is the process of mobilizing voters and getting them to the polls. And the first step is registering people to vote.

But in Florida this year, there are tough new restrictions on groups that conduct voter registration drives. The restrictions already appear to be having an impact on the number of people who are registering to vote.

"We go to dense Hispanic neighborhoods — shopping plazas, supermarkets," says Natalie Carlier of the National Council of La Raza, "and basically we're just out there talking to people, letting them know that we're providing a service and that we want them to vote."

With clipboard in hand, canvasser Melli Romero approaches shoppers at the bustling La Mia Supermarket in Miami's Allapattah neighborhood, asking if they have a voter registration card and, if they don't, whether they'd like to sign up to vote.

Shoppers come and go while music blares from a nearby coffee shop. It's one of the places where Carlier says her group likes to register new voters.

Over the past two months, Romero and others with NCLR have registered nearly 10,000 Hispanic voters in Miami-Dade County.

This is work the group has done before, but this year, registering a voter has become more time-consuming and exacting than in the past. Each canvasser now must first register with the state. And groups must turn in completed forms within 48 hours — rather than the 10 days they had previously — or they'll face significant penalties.

Carlier says that puts them on a tight schedule.

"The quality control process is the canvasser checks all the forms," says Carlier. "Then their captain checks all the forms. Then our quality control manager checks all the forms. And once all that is done, before I turn them in, I check all the forms. It's a long process, and we have to, you know, squeeze it within 48 hours for every day's work."

The new rules are part of an election law passed by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature. Because of those rules, and their potential penalties, the League of Women Voters and some other groups have stopped conducting voter registration drives in Florida. The League is challenging the rules in federal court, but in the meantime, few nonpartisan groups aside from NCLR are registering voters in the state.

Although the new rules have been in effect less than a year, University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith says its clear they're already having an impact.

An analysis he did that was built upon by The New York Times shows that in the first eight months the law was in effect, 81,000 fewer new voters were added to the registration rolls compared with the same period four years earlier.

"What we've seen very clearly is that there's been a drop-off in new registrations across the state of Florida," says Smith. "And that indicates that these groups like the League of Women Voters, the Boy Scouts and others that have engaged in voter registration in past years that are not doing so have had an effect. We have less younger people registering to vote in the state of Florida."

As the general election campaigns ramp up, that may begin to change. President Obama's re-election campaign has 27 field offices throughout Florida where it's training volunteers on the new voter registration requirements. The campaign says it's beginning an active voter outreach effort that it will carry through Election Day. Florida's Republican Party is gearing up for a similar effort.

Along with restricting third-party groups conducting registration drives, Florida's new election rules also cut back on the number of days polls are open for early voting. And they require those who change their addresses on Election Day to cast provisional ballots.

Camila Gallardo of NCLR says those are all measures that disproportionately affect minorities. She doesn't think that's a coincidence.

"Minorities are more likely to register [to vote] through a third-party voter organization like NCLR. So, you know, you can't help but think that this is in some way targeted," says Gallardo. "And if you look at the arguments about, 'Oh, this is to curb voter fraud,' voter fraud does not usually occur at the voter registration level."

Republican leaders in Florida's Legislature say the new voting rules are needed to combat fraud. Recently, state elections officials began an investigation that appears to give that argument some credence. They announced they're examining registrations of thousands of Florida voters who may not be U.S. citizens.

The chairman of Florida's Republican Party, Lenny Curry, says the investigation shows why tighter voting rules are necessary.

"The point is, any level of individuals casting a vote that are not eligible to vote is unacceptable. You go back to the 2000 election. Florida was decided by less than 550 votes," says Curry. "You cannot have people that are not eligible to vote casting votes in our election. It completely undermines the integrity of our system."

Voting rights activists say the investigation is an attempt by a Republican administration to bolster the legal case for the restrictions. Florida's new voting rules, the activists charge, are less about combating fraud than about politics.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We to not know how, if at all, gay marriage will affect this fall's election, where economic issues may dominate. We do know that the key states on the electoral map once again include Florida.

Political groups have already begun what they call the ground game in Florida, mobilizing people to vote. But this year, Florida has tough new restrictions on groups that conduct voter registration drives. Those restrictions appear to be reducing the number of people who are registering to vote.

NPR's Greg Allen reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: La Mia Supermarket in Miami's Allapattah neighborhood is a bustling place, even on a weekday afternoon. Shoppers come and go while music blares from a nearby coffee shop. It's one of the places where Natalie Carlier of National Council of La Raza says her group likes to register new voters.

NATALIE CARLIER: We go to dense, Hispanic neighborhoods - shopping plazas, supermarkets. And basically, we're just out there talking to people and letting them know that we're providing a service and that we want them to vote.

MELLI ROMERO: (Spanish spoken)

ALLEN: With clipboard in hand, canvasser Melli Romero approaches shoppers, asking if they have a voter registration card, and if they don't, whether they'd like to sign up to vote.

Over the last two months, Romero and others with National Council of La Raza have registered nearly 10,000 Hispanic voters in Miami-Dade County. This is work NCLR has done before, but this year, registering a voter has become more time-consuming and exacting than in the past. Each canvasser now must first register with the state. And groups must turn in completed forms within 48 hours, rather than the 10 days available previously, or they'll face significant penalties. Carlier says that puts them on a tight schedule.

CARLIER: The canvasser checks all the forms and their captain checks all of the forms. Then our quality control manager checks all the forms. And once all that is done, before I turn them in, I check all the forms. It's a long process, and we have to, you know, squeeze it within 48 hours.

ALLEN: Because of those rules and the potential penalties, the League of Women Voters and some other groups have stopped conducting voter registration drives in Florida. The League is challenging the rules in federal court, but in the meantime, aside from National Council of La Raza, few other non-partisan groups are registering voters in the state. Although the new rules have been in effect less than a year, University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith says it's clear they're already having an impact. An analysis he did that was built upon by The New York Times shows that in the first eight months it was in effect, 81,000 fewer new voters were added to the registration rolls compared to the same period four years earlier.

DANIEL SMITH: And that indicates that these groups like the League of Women Voters, the Boy Scouts and others that have engaged in voter registration in past years that are not doing so have had an effect. We have less younger people registering to vote in the state of Florida.

ALLEN: As the general election campaigns ramp up, that may begin to change. The Obama campaign has 27 field offices throughout Florida, where it's training volunteers on the new voter registration requirements. The campaign says it's beginning an active voter outreach effort that it will carry through Election Day. Florida's Republican Party is gearing up for a similar effort. Along with restricting third-party groups conducting registration drives, Florida's new election rules also cut back on the number of days polls are open for early voting. In addition, they require those who change their addresses on Election Day to cast provisional ballots. Camila Gallardo of National Council of La Raza says those are all measures that disproportionately affect minorities. She doesn't think that's a coincidence.

CAMILA GALLARDO: Minorities are more likely to register through a third-party voter organization, like NCLR. So, you know, you can't help but think that this is, in some way, targeted.

ALLEN: Republican leaders say the new voting rules are needed to combat fraud. Recently, state elections officials began an investigation that appears to give that argument some credence. They announced they're examining registrations of thousands of Florida voters who may not be U.S. citizens. The chair of Florida's Republican Party, Lenny Curry, says the investigation shows why tighter voting rules are necessary.

LENNY CURRY: The point is, any level of individuals casting a vote that are not eligible to vote is unacceptable. You go back to the 2000 election. Florida was decided by less than 550 votes. You cannot have people that are not eligible to vote casting votes in our election. It completely undermines the integrity of our system.

ALLEN: Voting rights activists say the investigation is an attempt by a Republican administration to bolster the legal case for the restrictions. Florida's new voting rules, the activists charge, are less about combating fraud than about politics. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.