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Wednesday, Aug 27, 2014
Politics

Faulty filter let Hillsborough voters list unlawful addresses

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— Hillsborough County elections officials are supposed to flag any voter registration that’s submitted with a business rather than a home address, but they’ve discovered that a filter designed to help them with the process hasn’t worked for years.

A citizen alerted the elections office in December to 117 names he found on the voter rolls listing UPS stores as home addresses. UPS, like the U.S. Postal Service, rents secure space for mail delivery.

A search afterward by the elections office added 34 names to the list, for a total of 151.

“If we had known they were on there, we would have taken appropriate steps to get them off or get them in a right residential address,” Elections supervisor Craig Latimer said.

It turns out the problem isn’t new; a Tampa Tribune analysis shows that 106 of those voters had been on the supervisor’s rolls at those addresses in March 2012. Latimer said his research shows many of the voters had been on the rolls since the 1990s.

The discovery comes against a backdrop of intense scrutiny of Florida’s voter rolls. In 2012, Gov. Rick Scott pushed for a statewide purge of voters who could not prove they are U.S. citizens. County elections supervisors, including Latimer, resisted the effort. Last month, the state dropped it.

A home address is important because geography determines most of a voter’s representatives, in races from the school board to Congress.

The first notices to registration scofflaws went out Jan. 27. That was the next business day after the citizen who discovered the 117 addresses followed up with a public records request asking how many letters Latimer had sent, as required by law.

The timing was a coincidence, Latimer said. He said his office had “identified the problem” before the first alert from the citizen.

The delay in sending out the notifications, he said, was because his office had to verify the addresses and check for clerical errors.

“We are always going to proceed with caution before removing voters from the rolls,” he said in an email Friday. “In this case we were looking at a list of citizens who were eligible to vote but submitted an invalid residential address.”

Latimer acknowledged he would have started the process even earlier if he had known that the computer filter that was supposed to weed out commercial addresses was misfiring.

“They shouldn’t have been able to register or we should have been able to see it quicker,” he said.

The vendors hired by the elections office to provide computer mapping and voter roll maintenance have yet to fix the computer glitch that allowed the commercial addresses to slip by unnoticed. Until that happens, the office is checking addresses manually, Latimer said.

The application people fill out when they register to vote has a line that says “Address where you live.” It further specifies that the applicant should enter their “legal residence — not a P.O. Box.” The application goes on to ask for a mailing address if it is different from the residential address.

At the bottom of the form, the applicant signs an oath swearing he or she is a qualified elector and that all the information provided is true.

The 151 people who listed business addresses as their homes violated the oath, Latimer said, but he added that they are guilty only of ignorance.

“These are people who don’t really understand the nuances and how particular the law is,” he said.

One of those voters was Teresa Fudge, who listed her residential address as the UPS store at 235 Apollo Beach Blvd. Fudge said she was living between homes in Apollo Beach and Georgia. She thought she had given the elections office the address of her home in Apollo Beach.

“I would have thought my registration would have had my residential address,” said Fudge, who sold her Apollo Beach home in 2009. “I would have had no reason not to have given my residential address.”

All 151 people who listed business addresses were eventually removed from the voting rolls. First, however, Latimer followed the legal process of trying to notify them by mail. Most did not respond to the letters. Those who did acknowledged they had listed the businesses.

Latimer’s office then published the names of the people who did not respond to the letters in a newspaper for 30 days, as required by law. They still didn’t respond and were removed from the rolls.

“I wanted to make sure we gave these people due process,” he said. “Just because the computer now tells us they’re at an inappropriate address ... I wasn’t just going to take away their right to vote.”

State law requires that supervisors of election remove ineligible voters from the voting rolls. A voter can be determined ineligible for a number of reasons, including listing an address that is not his or her legal residence.

Latimer said his office is constantly “scrubbing” the voter rolls for inactive or dead voters and improper addresses. Since 2009, the office has placed 108,000 people on inactive status because they’ve gone through two general elections without voting.

“Just in 2014,” he said, “we have sent out about 150,000 transactions to confirm addresses with voters.”

msalinero@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-8303

Staff writer Kevin Wiatrowski contributed to this report.

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