By GARY FINEOUT, Associated Press
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — What first appeared to be an isolated problem in one Florida county has now spread statewide, with election officials in at least seven counties informing prosecutors or state election officials about questionable voter registration forms filled out on behalf of the Republican Party of Florida.
State Republican officials already have fired the vendor it had hired to register voters, and on Thursday took the additional step of filing an election fraud complaint against the company, Strategic Allied Consulting, with state officials.
A spokesman for Florida's GOP said the matter was being treated very seriously.
"We are doing what we can to find out how broad the scope is," said Brian Burgess, the spokesman.
Florida is the battleground state where past election problems led to the chaotic recount that followed the 2000 presidential election.
The Florida state party has paid Strategic Allied Consulting more than $1.3 million, and the Republican National Committee used the group for nearly $3 million of work in Nevada, North Carolina, Colorado and Virginia.
The company said earlier this week that it was cooperating with elections officials in Florida. It said the suspect forms were turned in by one person, who has been fired.
"Strategic has a zero-tolerance policy for breaking the law," Fred Petti, a company attorney, said Thursday.
An email request to the company seeking additional comment, following the company's instructions, was not immediately returned Friday.
In Florida, it is a third-degree felony to "willfully submit" any false voter registration information, a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.
The questionable forms have showed up in South Florida, including Miami-Dade, as well as northeast Florida and the Florida Panhandle.
Election officials in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties on Thursday handed over more than 100 suspect forms to local prosecutors. They did so days after officials in Palm Beach County also alerted prosecutors.
Ann Bodenstein, the elections supervisor for Santa Rosa County, said her staff started raising questions after an employee saw a form that changed the home address of a neighbor.
Paul Lux, election supervisor for Okaloosa County, said questionable forms in the Florida Panhandle appear to have all come from Strategic's effort based at the local Republican Party headquarters. He said his office has turned up dozens of suspect forms.
Lux said there have been forms that listed dead people, and were either incomplete or illegible. He met with local prosecutors on Friday, but added that his staff was still going through hundreds of forms dropped off by Strategic employees.
Lux, who is a Republican, said he warned local party officials earlier this month when he first learned the company was paying people to register voters.
"I told them 'This is not going to end well,'" Lux said.
Lux also said he was told by the head of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters that Strategic employees said they were only registering Republicans or independents, and not Democrats. The individual apparently witnessed what the employees were doing.
But Lux added that he did not blame the Republican Party of Florida.
"I can't place the blame on RPOF if they hired a firm and that firm wasn't following the rules they were given to follow," Lux said.