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In Florida, Registering Voters A Whole New Game
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In Florida, Registering Voters A Whole New Game

Elections

In Florida, Registering Voters A Whole New Game
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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.

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