Barbara Johnson, a National Council of La Raza voter registration canvasser, assists Quilvio Rodriguez, 26, of Miami, with his registration application on May 31, 2012, outside a grocery store in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. (Photo by Ethan Magoc/News21.)

By Ethan Magoc

Florida’s hanging chads and butterfly ballots in 2000 ignited the divisive battle that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court denying an election recount, effectively declaring that George W. Bush won the presidential election by 537 votes.

Another potentially close election is ahead, and the nation’s largest swing state is again at the center of a partisan debate over voting rules — this time, a fight about the removal of non-citizens from Florida’s voter roll and how the state oversees groups who register voters.

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“Who Can Vote?” was produced by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. News21 is funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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It is set against a national backdrop of a bitter fight between Democrats who say voting rights of students and minorities are endangered and Republicans who say that voter fraud is widespread enough to sway an election.

While many other states have considered laws that would require that people show a photo ID before they can vote, Florida has taken a different tack. Republicans there wrote a law in 2011 that they said would eliminate voter registration fraud by more closely controlling third-party registration, early voting hours and voter address updates.

“With the old law, some things weren’t illegal or designated as fraud,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican and funeral home owner who sponsored the bill.

Voting rights advocates were most concerned about these features of the new law: reducing from 10 days to 48 hours the time that third-party groups had to hand in voter registrations and cutting early voting days from 14 to eight, including eliminating the Sunday before Election Day. Those whose address has changed to another county since they registered, must cast a provisional ballot and confirm their new address within two days.

Of the roughly 22 million Florida votes cast since 2000, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has received only 175 complaints of voting-related fraud, 11 of which led to convictions, according to data obtained by News21.

Baxley said his bill was a proactive step. “We wanted to prevent mishap and mischief.”

For Navene Shata, a 21-year-old south Florida college student, the changes meant she would have to update her address at least a month before voting. She works 30 hours a week around a busy class schedule and involvement with student government.

“I do keep watch and want to see what the candidates have to say,” Shata said, “but voting is frustrating when these pointless things get in the way.”

No Democrats voted for the final version of Florida’s 2011 election law changes. Two Republican senators, Paula Dockery and Mike Fasano, opposed the measure, Fasano said, when supporters didn’t present much evidence of fraud.

“The whole process was poor. Major changes were made in committee, and none of it was vetted,” Dockery said. “When one party has two-thirds of the vote, you can overrule anything. People go off to extremes.”

Gov. Rick Scott, who signed the 2011 law, took an interest in voter rolls when an analysis by the Florida departments of State and of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles found 180,000 Floridians were registered to vote, had driver’s licenses but had not confirmed their citizenship status.

Secretary of State Ken Detzner discussed the issue with election supervisors in April. The state cut the list to 2,700 voters before sending it to county officials to verify citizenship status.

The problem? The shorter list included many citizens.

What’s become known as the voter purge worried many — from legal voters who were incorrectly targeted, to county officials to voting rights advocates.

Again, there is uncertainty in Florida, a state with troubled election history. Poll taxes were required until 1937, and voting rule changes in five counties are subject to federal review because of a pattern of civil rights violations.

The Department of Justice in June unsuccessfully sued in federal court to stop the voter removal, and another suit from four civil rights groups is pending.

Federal law prohibits sweeping state voter removals within 90 days of a federal election, and Florida has an Aug. 14 primary. But a federal judge in late June said the state can remove confirmed non-citizens.

“It’s the timing, it’s the fear-mongering,” said Myrna Perez of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, a public policy group that opposed many voting rule changes nationally. “This scare tactic that there are hordes of non-citizens voting is wrong.”

Third-party registration

Neither the 2000 presidential election controversy nor the current disputes much mattered to a group of Miami high school students who registered to vote in May.

“Eh, kinda. That was like 12 years ago. I was 5,” said Kristena Swanson, 17, a Southwest Miami High School senior and one of 318 students who registered May 30 in the school’s auditorium. “But, yeah, I know how bad the voting issues have been here before.”

Miami-Dade Public Schools became a Florida third-party voter registration group in March. Sixty district schools registered more than 10,000 high school students on April 4. They held a second drive May 30, and at school year’s end, 12,514 Miami-Dade students had registered — Florida’s third-largest registration group total.

Under the 2011 law, voter registration groups that formerly had 10 days to turn in completed registration forms were given just 48 hours to do so. They faced a $50 fine for each form turned in more than two days after completion, among other restrictions. But organizations statewide developed strategies to turn in voter registration forms within 48 hours, as the 2011 law required.

“When the law changed,” said Millie Fornell, a Miami-Dade associate superintendent, “we at the district office sat down and said, ‘How do we take the onus away from the schools?’”

The day after Miami-Dade’s second voter drive in May, however, a federal judge threw out the 48-hour rule, reverting to the previous 10-day period.

Baxley said he wasn’t that upset with the decision. “I don’t think they got much for their money on the lawsuit,” he said “If they want 10 days instead of two, fine.”

“They” are the League of Women Voters, the Florida Public Interest Research Group Education Fund and Rock the Vote, federal lawsuit plaintiffs. The league and Rock the Vote suspended registration drives for 13 months.

“We need the state to settle down and make sure people can be proud of Florida’s elections,” said Deirdre Macnab, the league’s Florida president. “Registering voters is our most popular job, and it was the first thing we did in 1939.” Its efforts were more informal door-to-door canvassing until the 1970s when counties first started deputizing registrants.

About 100 other third-party groups, including the nonpartisan National Council of La Raza, which advocates for Latino civil rights, continued registering voters throughout the past year.

Chip Corley, 19, of West Palm Beach, Fla., updates his voter registration card with Jacquie Ayala, the Florida organizer for the Southern Energy Network on May 30, 2012. Ayala and two volunteers held a voter registration drive on the Florida Atlantic University campus in Boca Raton, Fla. The Southern Energy Network is an active third-party registration group registered with Florida’s Division of Elections. (Photo by Ethan Magoc/News21.)

“We don’t tell people who or what to vote for. We just want them to register,” said Natalie Carlier, La Raza’s regional coordinator. And its canvassers do not only register Hispanics.

On a humid May afternoon, about 20 La Raza canvassers gathered in an upstairs room of their nondescript office building near downtown Miami. Carlier stood in the middle of the canvassers’ half-circle, speaking to part-time workers who cover parts of Miami several hours a day, five days a week.

Carlier fielded questions and problems that the canvassers recently encountered. Charts on the wall noted each day’s voter tally. A paper cutout of a thermometer’s mercury showed how many voters her group has to register to reach its goal of 35,000-plus before November.

Through July, La Raza had registered more than 35,000 voters, according to the Florida Division of Elections.

Barbara Johnson, 36, was born in Cuba to an African-American father and Cuban mother. She joined La Raza two years ago on a whim — quitting a retail job — and became dedicated to the work.

Hundreds of times a day, any time someone walks past her spot outside a Little Havana supermarket, she has a rapid-fire approach.

“Hola! Como esta? Esta registrada para votar?” she gets a curt nod in return from an older woman. “Any updates? Change of address? New voter card?” Johnson, like other canvassers, moves easily between English and Spanish.

Angelica Arroyo, 36, came out of a Publix supermarket and filled out a card with her teenage daughter watching. “I wasn’t registered and wanted to vote,” Arroyo said in Spanish. “I would have tried to register, but I’m happy I found her just now.”

County-to-county address changes

Navene Shata was up early during the school year, in class all day at Palm Beach State College and worked almost full time at a nearby CVS.

Her schedule is typical of many working college students without much free time.

Shata recently moved from Boca Raton to Deerfield Beach — moving from Palm Beach County to Broward County in the process — which will help accommodate her new studies in pharmacy at Nova Southeastern University. Before the 2011 law, voters could change counties, update their address on Election Day and vote. Now, voters who don’t change their county registration before Oct. 29 can cast a provisional ballot and must return to the elections office within 10 days of voting and prove their new address is valid if they want their provisional ballot counted.

It was not an issue in January’s closed primary, when only Republicans could vote.

In Broward County, where Shata now lives, voters cast 4,222 provisional ballots in 2008; 3,958 were not counted — one of the worst acceptance rates in the state for that election.

Voters who recently moved between counties and don’t update their registration could face problems in November. Shata said she’ll make time this summer to update her registration, although “I don’t understand why the law was changed.”

The purge, the election

The governor continues to defend the state’s non-citizen voter purge.

“We’re doing the right thing,” Scott said on CNN in June. “I can’t imagine anybody not wanting to make sure non-citizens don’t dilute a legitimate U.S. citizen’s vote.”

The process began well ahead of the 2012 election. For months, Florida’s Department of State requested access to a federal database with better information about citizenship than the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security denied access, claiming the database was not designed as a voter-roll maintenance tool. The state sued, claiming that federal law requires the database be shared.

The U.S. Department of Justice countersued to block the purge. The same judge who reversed the 48-hour third-party registration law said Florida is allowed to remove non-citizen voters, but most county officials refused to do so because they do not trust the state’s list.

Homeland Security agreed in July to share its Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) database, a system that Detzner said updates every 72 hours.

“Keep in mind,” Detzner said, “if we have a name that we run across the SAVE database and it’s a citizen, that person will never be processed on down to the (county election) supervisors. Supervisors are ultimately the ones that make a decision about taking someone off of the rolls.”

Michael Ertel, supervisor of elections in Seminole County, just north of Orlando, is concerned about the dispute’s effects on voters: “What I don’t want to see is people reading these stories and then saying, ‘You know what? The process doesn’t work. Forget it. I don’t want to vote.’”

Ertel supported the law’s changes and voter-roll maintenance — presuming it’s conducted properly — but said he fears the fight could disillusion voters.

“When they don’t go to the polls,” Ertel said, “that’s a sad bit of collateral damage.”

Andrea Rumbaugh and Joe Henke of News21 contributed to this story.

Joe Henke was a Hearst Foundations Fellow this summer at News21.

This report is part of a project on voting rights in America produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.