WASHINGTON — When elections officials in Palm Beach County, Fla., checked out a form indicating that Carlos Ferrer, 36, wanted a new voter ID, they knew something was wrong. Ferrer is 43, and, instead of his home, the form listed his address as the Land Rover dealership where he works.
Ferrer didn’t fill out the form. It was one of the suspicious registrations linked to a voter turnout campaign financed by the Republican National Committee, an operation that has spawned criminal investigations in Florida and elsewhere.
The allegations are just the latest to spring from partisan voter registration drives, one of the darker corners of the political consulting world. Almost every election season, these campaigns — which typically pay workers to collect registrations — lead to charges of trickery and fraud: forged signatures, made-up names, voters who say they were duped into registering with the wrong party.
Earlier this fall, some voters in California’s Riverside County who thought they were signing petitions for ballot measures to legalize marijuana or create jobs said they unwillingly ended up registered as Republicans.
In California, voter registration drives generate more complaints and more arrests than any other type of election-related activity, according to statistics collected by the state Legislature.
“Everybody likes to talk about voter fraud, but it’s really about voter registration fraud,” said Darren Chesin, chief consultant for the California Senate elections committee. “That’s where we constantly see stories in the papers of people actually getting arrested and prosecuted.”
Experts say problems are inevitable with the American system of voter registration, in which a hodgepodge of state rules applies and the job of registering new voters is often left to political parties and activist groups.
Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, said registration drives perform a valuable public service. But in many of the paid campaigns, she pointed out, the goal is not simply to register voters, it’s to sign up voters for the party that is paying. “And they may also have an incentive to make sure voters for the other side are not registered,” she said.
In recent elections, political consultants say, most of the money for paid registration drives has come from Republicans. Brian Schrier, who assembles crews to collect signatures, said he once worked a drive that paid a $25 “bounty” for each Republican voter.
“It’s insane, paying that much to register someone to vote Republican,” said Schrier, who lives on a sailboat in Morro Bay. “When someone is paying that much, greed takes over, and bad things happen. The bounty program, in my opinion, needs to end.”
Eleven states, including Florida, have made it illegal to pay bounties for registration cards. In California, where professional signature-gatherers are widely employed, the Legislature has twice passed bills to outlaw such payments. Both times, they were vetoed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown. “Voting is at the heart of our democracy,” he said. “Efforts to register voters should be encouraged, not criminalized.”
Federal courts have split on whether such bans are legal; the issue is likely headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The troubled Republican National Committee registration campaign was organized by Nathan Sproul, the son of a traveling evangelist who has become one of the largest consultants on the GOP side in the gritty business of street-level politics. In past campaigns, Sproul has churned up a wake of allegations of voter deception and fraud from Pennsylvania to Oregon.
None of the charges have stuck, and none of the controversy has stopped Sproul from getting work. Sproul, of Arizona, has said he did more than $15 million in business last year.
“He gets in trouble almost every election cycle and nothing ever comes of it,” said Steve May, a former Republican state legislator in Arizona. “He may walk a fine line, but that’s where the winners walk in tough elections.”
Sproul was paid at least $3.5 million through the Republican National Committee to organize get-out-the-vote drives in eight swing states and signed up more than 100,000 voters, he said. But Sproul was fired after election supervisors in Florida found dozens of suspect registration forms. Other suspicious forms turned up in North Carolina and in Virginia. After Sproul was dismissed, a registration-drive supervisor was arrested in Harrisonburg, Va., and accused of throwing eight voter registration forms into a trash bin.
Sproul and others in the profession say it’s difficult to catch workers forging signatures and keep their projects clean. In paid drives, the work is often handled by temporary workers who receive minimal training.
Kellen Arno, field director for Arno Political Consultants, based in Carlsbad, said training centers often display photocopies of news stories and police reports of forgeries as a warning for new employees. “It’s almost a constant game of making sure people are following the rules,” Arno said.
One rule is the same across the country: Registration workers must turn in all forms signed by voters, no matter which party. But they can — and do — try to screen out voters from the other side.
In the recent campaign on behalf of the Republicans, Sproul’s workers, who were paid by the hour, were coached to ask people whom they supported in the election. If the answer was President Obama, they were thanked and passed by. If the answer was Mitt Romney, they were asked whether they were registered and offered a form.
“There’s a difference between stinky behavior and illegal behavior,” said Jennie Drage Bowser, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “It doesn’t feel right, but that’s kind of the nature of campaigning.”
She said states, in trying to regulate these campaigns, struggle to strike a balance between preventing fraud and allowing easy access to the voter rolls.
In the name of fighting fraud, 22 states set deadlines on how long companies can hold completed forms. In six states, voter-registration groups must sign up with the state. Other states require training for workers or number the forms for tracking purposes.
But critics say laws intended to prevent fraud in paid operations also make it tougher for nonpartisan groups, such as the League of Women Voters. Last year, measures to restrict third-party voter registration drives failed in seven states; Florida passed a law, but the deadline provision was struck by a federal court as too restrictive.
Experts say the best way to prevent fraud is to make it easier for voters to register. Bowser said more states are permitting online voter registration; 12 states now offer it, and three more have passed laws allowing it.
“What we really need,” Weiser said, “is a system where government takes responsibility for making sure all citizens are on the rolls.”
Staff writer Matea Gold contributed to this report.