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Many Voters Caught Unawares by Florida's 'No-Match' ID Law

by Curtis Morgan and Charles Rabin

What do a promising rookie for the Miami Heat, a systems analyst from Bulgaria, the wife of a Republican congressional candidate and Fidel Castro have in common?

Critics say the law adds unneeded steps for minor ID problems and is skewed against minorities. Hispanics and blacks outnumbered non-Hispanics by more than six to one on the list in South Florida, and three to one statewide. (Image: Miller-McCune) They can't just show up Nov. 4 and fill out a regular ballot. Theirs are among 12,000 names statewide flagged under Florida's Voter Verification Law, a ''no match'' screening process embroiled in legal and political controversy.

The ID check spits out voter registrations that don't match driver's license or social security records. It has left voters on a list dominated by blacks, Hispanics and Democrats in a legal limbo -- unless they supply elections officials with additional proof they are who they say they are.

More than one-third of the people on the ''no match'' list live in Miami-Dade or Broward counties -- most notably Mario Chalmers, a Heat guard who starred in last year's Final Four college basketball championships.

Chalmers, who grew up in Alaska and played in Kansas, said his father successfully sorted out the ID mess.

''All I have to do is go vote,'' he said, ``so that made it easier for me.''

The process has not been such a breeze for everyone. A Miami Herald survey of 50 no-match voters showed that more than a third didn't know the list, or law, even existed.

The 2006 law, created by a Republican-led Legislature, was put on hold after civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit last year. Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning, a Republican, imposed a new version on Sept. 8 over objections from Democratic and voter activists who contend it targets minorities.

The screening snagged dubious registrations among 437,638 new filers statewide, including some 600 who were under-age and two people who told The Herald they weren't citizens.

The address given for one Fidel Castro, registered as a 53-year-old Republican, also was suspect: the Camillus House homeless shelter in Miami. A woman who answered a phone number provided on Castro's form replied in Spanish, ''Fidel lives in Cuba,'' then hung up.

But the law also flagged plenty of regular people -- particularly in South Florida, where Miami-Dade ranked No. 1 with 2,944 names and Broward No. 3 with 1,602.

A Herald phone survey of 50 no-match voters in the two counties suggests many don't know they are on the list or how to get off. More than a third reported either not receiving or overlooking letters from elections offices.

ID REQUIRED

Under state law, counties are supposed to send ''no match'' voters notice that they need to provide elections offices with a driver's license or Social Security card to receive a regular ballot. Otherwise, they could be forced to cast a ''provisional'' ballot subject to additional scrutiny and higher rates of rejection.

Kavin Walden, 23, who registered Oct. 6 when an activist approached him at a park in Liberty City, didn't know the screening snared him as ''Kevin,'' not Kavin.

''I've been waiting for my voter registration card,'' said Walden, a lifeguard at Jose Martí Park worried about health insurance for his 4-year-old daughter and newborn son. ``I don't want to miss this election.''

For people who were notified, the time and effort to resolve identification discrepancies varied. Some reported doing it with a single fax or e-mail, while others found the process slow and frustrating.

Angela Graham-West, wife of Allen West, a Broward Republican congressional candidate, was surprised she was flagged after she registered at the main elections office in Fort Lauderdale.

''Of all people, that I would get caught up in this little web,'' Graham-West said.

Though black and Republican, she discounted race and party as a factor. She guessed the problem was either a middle initial or her identification. She used a military ID because her husband is a recently retired Army lieutenant colonel.

Still, she didn't view the ''hassle'' as an obstacle and supported the scrutiny. ``I think my temporary discomfort is far less important than having an accurate election.''

Husband Allen laughed that he'd like his wife's vote, but he likened the law to a guard gate at a military base.

''Security is a good thing, especially when you think about some of the things going on right now,'' he said.

MINORITIES 6-1 ON LIST

Democrats and other critics argue the state already has a strict ID requirement to vote. They say the law adds unneeded steps for minor ID problems and is skewed against minorities. Hispanics and blacks outnumbered non-Hispanics by more than six to one on the list in South Florida, and three to one statewide. Democrats outnumbered Republicans about four to one both locally and statewide.

Elizabeth Westfall, senior attorney for the Washington, D.C.-based Advancement Project, one of the groups challenging the law, said a law touted as anti-fraud is instead snaring ``sports figures and people who are in the public eye.''

On Thursday, 15 activist groups, including ACORN and the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote Gov. Charlie Crist asking for more flexibility with a law they said ``only prevents valid votes from counting.''

They want the state to relax a standard set by Browning requiring no-match voters to cast provisional ballots. Miami-Dade and some other counties already are providing regular ballots if no-match voters come to the polls with copies of ID documents.

The Republican Party of Florida has backed Browning, arguing the standard ensures illegitimate votes don't cancel out legitimate ones.

`PHOTOCOPY IS KEY'

Jennifer Krell Davis, a spokeswoman for Browning, said the state had slightly ''refined'' its stance to allow no-match voters to present copies of ID papers at polls, rather than the elections office. But the state still wants counties to use a provisional ballot with the ID papers attached -- the standard Broward is using.

''The photocopy is the key,'' Davis said. ``If we're trying so hard to keep accurate voter rolls, we want to make sure we have an audit trail to follow.''

Any no-match voters without copies of ID must use a provisional ballot -- and resolve discrepancies by 5 p.m. Nov. 6 for their vote to count.

Davis said voters still have time to straighten out the issues. For some, getting off the list has been easy.

Jonathan Gonzalez, a 27-year-old who registered by mail in September, faxed a copy of his Social Security card after he got a no-match notice. He early voted at the North Miami Library this week with a regular ballot.

''I guess everything is OK because I didn't hear back,'' he said, ``and I voted."

Others have had to work a little harder.

Davie's Michael McIntosh, 20, said repeated busy signals thwarted attempts to fax his driver's license to the Broward elections office.

''Finally it went through and now I can't talk to anyone to verify they got it,'' said McIntosh, a student at Southeastern University in Lakeland. He has hung up after lengthy waits on hold but he said he has not given up.

''I'm patient enough not to get worked up about it,'' he said.

Others were shocked to find their registrations in question less than a week from Election Day.

''I've been in this country for 12 years and I was excited to be able to do this,'' said Katina Iyer, a systems analyst from Planation. Iyer, originally from Bulgaria, signed up the day of her citizenship ceremony in Miami in September. ``They said just wait for your card in the mail, and almost every day I have been waiting.''

Miami Herald staff writers Diana Moskovitz, Adam Beasley, Dan Chang, Kirstin Maguire, Susannah A. Nesmith and Mike Wallace contributed to this report.

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