Updated Tuesday, November 27, 2012 at 02:15 PM
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A new Florida law that contributed to long voter lines and caused some to abandon voting altogether was intentionally designed by Florida GOP staff and consultants to inhibit Democratic voters, former GOP officials and current GOP consultants have told The Palm Beach Post.
Republican leaders said in proposing the law that it was meant to save money and fight voter fraud. But a former GOP chairman and former Gov. Charlie Crist, both of whom have been ousted from the party, now say that fraud concerns were advanced only as subterfuge for the law's main purpose: GOP victory.
Former Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer says he attended various meetings, beginning in 2009, at which party staffers and consultants pushed for reductions in early voting days and hours.
"The Republican Party, the strategists, the consultants, they firmly believe that early voting is bad for Republican Party candidates," Greer told The Post. "It's done for one reason and one reason only. ... 'We've got to cut down on early voting because early voting is not good for us,"' Greer said he was told by those staffers and consultants.
"They never came in to see me and tell me we had a (voter) fraud issue," Greer said. "It's all a marketing ploy."
Greer is now under indictment, accused of stealing $200,000 from the party through a phony campaign fund-raising operation. He, in turn, has sued the party, saying GOP leaders knew what he was doing and voiced no objection.
"Jim Greer has been accused of criminal acts against this organization and anything he says has to be considered in that light," says Brian Burgess, Florida GOP spokesman since September.
But Greer's statements about the motivations for the party's legislative efforts, implemented by a GOP-majority House and Senate in Tallahassee in 2011, are backed by Crist — also now on the outs with the party — and two veteran GOP campaign consultants.
Wayne Bertsch, who handles local and legislative races for Republicans, said he knew targeting Democrats was the goal.
"In the races I was involved in in 2008, when we started seeing the increase of turnout and the turnout operations that the Democrats were doing in early voting, it certainly sent a chill down our spines. And in 2008, it didn't have the impact that we were afraid of. It got close, but it wasn't the impact that they had this election cycle," Bertsch said, referring to the fact that Democrats picked up seven legislative seats in Florida in 2012 despite the early voting limitations.
Another GOP consultant, who did not want to be named, also confirmed that influential consultants to the Republican Party of Florida were intent on beating back Democratic turnout in early voting after 2008.
In 2008 Democrats, especially African-Americans, turned out in unprecedented numbers for President Barack Obama, many of them casting ballots during 14 early voting days.
In 2011 Republicans, who had super majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, passed HB 1355, which curtailed early voting days from 14 to eight; greatly proscribed the activities of voter registration organizations like the League of Women Voters; and made it harder for voters who had changed counties since the last election to cast ballots, a move that affected minorities proportionately more than whites. The League and others challenged the law in court, and a federal judge threw out most of the provisions related to voter registration organizations.
Various voter registration organizations, minority coalitions and Democratic office holders are now demanding investigations either by state or federal officials.
On Oct. 26, The Post published a story citing a deposition by Florida GOP General Counsel Emmett "Bucky" Mitchell IV in litigation between Florida and the U.S. Justice Department over HB 1355. Mitchell described a meeting near New Year's Day 2011, in which he was approached by GOP staffers and consultants to write the bill that would become HB 1355.
He said the meeting had followed other conversations with those same GOP officials and consultants since the fall of 2010.
Crist said he was asked to curb early voting
Crist said party leaders approached him during his 2007-2011 gubernatorial term about changing early voting, in an effort to suppress Democrat turnout. Crist is now at odds with the GOP, since abandoning the party to run for U.S. Senate as an independent in 2010. He is rumored to be planning another run for governor, as a Democrat.
Crist said in a telephone interview this month that he did not recall conversations about early voting specifically targeting black voters "but it looked to me like that was what was being suggested. And I didn't want them to go there at all."
About inhibiting minority voters, Greer said:
"The sad thing about that is yes, there is prejudice and racism in the party but the real prevailing thought is that they don't think minorities will ever vote Republican," he said. "It's not really a broad-based racist issue. It's simply that the Republican Party gave up a long time ago ever believing that anything they did would get minorities to vote for them."
But a GOP consultant who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution said black voters were a concern.
"I know that the cutting out of the Sunday before Election Day was one of their targets only because that's a big day when the black churches organize themselves," he said.
GOP spokesman Burgess discounted Crist's statement to The Post.
"Charlie Crist speaks out of both sides of his mouth," he said.
Former Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning, a Republican, has spoken favorably about HB 1355, because he believes its 12-hour early voting days — the law previously limited them to eight hours a day — give voters more flexibility to vote before or after work.
"But reducing early voting days does not attack voter fraud and given the longer days, it certainly does not save money," Browning has said.
In a 2011 deposition in the litigation over HB 1355, Browning said that while he was always concerned with voter fraud, he did not see it as a large problem in the state and that was why he did not include any mention of it in his legislative goals for 2011.
"It wasn't an issue that rose to the level to place it in our package," Browning said.
Greer told The Post that people who attended the GOP's behind-the-scenes meetings on early voting included: Andy Palmer, former state GOP executive director, now a Tallahassee political consultant; Bret Prater, head of party development; Randy Enwright of Enwright Consulting, a veteran Tallahassee political consultant; Jim Rimes, former state GOP executive director and now a consultant with Enwright; Kirk Pepper, a former top aide to House Speaker Dean Cannon; and Rich Heffley, a former top aide to Crist.
The Post contacted all of them. GOP spokesman Burgess responded for Palmer and Prater and also for Frank Terraferma, director of state House campaigns, who had been named in the Bucky Mitchell deposition as attending the meeting about the drafting of 1355.
"If what Greer said had happened, that would be wrong and he should have fired those men," Burgess said. "Why didn't he fire them? They said they were never in any meeting with Jim Greer of that kind. They never had meetings of that kind."
The other four did not respond.
Ex-House speaker: Law meant to curb fraud
Cannon, who took over as House speaker in 2010, said he had no conversations about early voting with GOP strategists and that he believed HB 1355 was aimed at voter fraud.
"I don't recall anybody talking about some tactical advantage or need to curtail early voting," said Cannon, who has launched a lobbying business in Tallahassee since his term as a state representative ended this month.
But Crist, who extended early voting hours in 2008 by executive order to address long lines during that presidential election, said he was approached about early voting but told the GOP consultants and staffers that he would veto any proposed legislative changes that would reduce early voting.
"The people that worked in Tallahassee felt that early voting was bad, " Crist said. "And I heard about it after I signed the executive order expanding it. I heard from Republicans around the state who were bold enough to share it with me that, 'You just gave the election to Barack Obama."'
It wasn't until Gov. Rick Scott took office in January 2011 that the idea went anywhere. It passed the Legislature that session and Scott signed it into law.
"I assume they decided, 'It's 2011, Crist is gone, let's give it a shot,"' Crist said. "And that's exactly what they did. And it is exactly what it turned out to be."
Before signing the law, Scott said he wanted to make voting easier and to eliminate voter fraud. Recently, he asked Secretary of State Ken Detzner to look into problems with the November election and to recommend changes if necessary.
Purging of non-citizens off voter rolls discussed
Besides early voting, Greer said other issues discussed at the behind-the-scenes meetings were voter registration organizations, attempts to have Florida Supreme Court judges defeated at the polls and the purging of voters on the rolls who might not be U.S. citizens.
"There is absolutely nothing with their absolute obsession with retaining power that they wouldn't do — changing the election laws to reduce early voting, to keep organizations like the League of Women Voters from registering people, going after the Supreme Court justices," Greer said of his former colleagues.
HB 1355 greatly reduced the time voter registration organizations had to hand in registration applications and imposed hefty fines for any violation of the time guidelines, which forced the largest voter registration organizations to suspend activities, afraid they might incur fines they couldn't afford. The League of Women Voters suspended its activities in Florida for the first time in nine decades.
A federal judge subsequently struck down those parts of 1355 and registration organizations resumed their activities over the summer of 2012.
The Division of Elections under Scott also issued purge lists for non-citizen voters, which several county elections supervisors have criticized as being filled with errors. The attempted voter purge resulted in several lawsuits against Scott's administration, and nearly all of the state's elections supervisors abandoned the effort in the months leading up to the presidential election.
And the Republican Party of Florida waged a campaign to defeat three Supreme Court justices this fall. Voters chose to retain all three.
Dara Kam and John Lantigua write for The Palm Beach Post. Email: dara(underscore)kam(at)pbpost.com, john(underscore)lantigua(at)pbpost.com. Staff researcher Michelle Quigley and staff writer Christine Stapleton contributed to this story.
JOE RIMKUS JR. / AP
Kezia Gipson, 3, waits with her grandparents Doris Ross and Freddie Irvin in a voting line at the International Longshoreman's Association Office in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012.