Claims that Florida is one of the "five worst states for voter suppression" are not borne out by rising registration statistics, a Sunshine State News analysis shows.
The liberal Center for American Progress charged that Florida election laws are subverting voter-registration efforts. A new law, requiring third-party registration groups to submit completed forms within 48 hours or face fines, prompted the League of Women Voters to halt its sign-up work in the state and to challenge the law in court.
Yet voter registration has continued to grow -- not shrink -- since the law took effect last July.
As of Feb. 12, the state Division of Elections listed 11,292,105 voters -- a 19.6 percent increase over 2009, and a 0.5 percent gain in just the first 43 days of this year. (Feb. 12 was the latest date for which figures were available.)
But while overall registrations are up, Democratic Party numbers are faltering -- and that's galling to liberal and "progressive" groups.
In the past three years, Republican registration rose by 133,668 (up 3.4 percent) and independent/no party affiliation ranks jumped 181,448 (up 7.4 percent), while Democrats slid 87,378 (down 1.9 percent).
During the same period, Florida's total population grew by an estimated 2.8 percent.
A recent New York Times analysis asserted that 81,471 fewer Floridians registered to vote since July 2011 compared with the same period before the 2008 presidential election, when Democratic registration surged in the state.
The Times detected some of the sharpest drops in urban centers with large minority populations. Miami-Dade County sign-ups were off by 39 percent and Orange County declined by 20 percent.
Chris Cate, spokesman for the Division of Elections, labels the Times' comparison "apples and oranges."
"In 2008, you had a primary election where anyone in Florida could vote -- there was a Democratic presidential primary, a Republican primary and a constitutional amendment on the ballot concerning property taxes.
"In the 2012 primary, only Republicans could vote" in the GOP's presidential primary, Cate noted.
Still, Deirdre Macnab, president of the Florida League of Women Voters, believes that tightened laws -- carrying fines of up to $5,000 for violations by third-party solicitors -- have had a chilling effect on community registration drives.
"These new laws frighten people from registering voters," she said.
Community voter registration drives draw disproportionate minority participation. Surveys show that minorities in Florida are approximately twice as likely to register to vote through such campaigns: 16.2 percent of blacks and 15.5 percent of Hispanics, versus 8.6 percent of whites.
Going back to 2005, Macnab said roughly 72 percent of eligible Florida voters were registered. In 2010, that share dropped to about 62 percent, she said.
"We believe there is a close connection between the drop in eligible registered voters and the Legislature continually trying to suppress voter registration through broad and vague regulation," Macnab said.
Conservatives flatly reject liberal activists' politically charged allegations of "suppression."
"This is clearly a campaign by the left to demonize Republicans, to play the race card and to use this as a wedge issue to make believe that Republicans are suppressing minority voters, which is clearly not the case," said Brian Darling, senior fellow for government studies at the Heritage Foundation.
What has been proven, he said, is a connection between fraud and voter-registration drives that pay by the signature.
"When you pay people to get voters, that tends to incentivize fraud. There have been numerous instances of bogus names being given."
Darling said the goal of Florida's election-reform laws -- as well as those passed in other states -- is to make Election Day run smoother.
"The intent is to make it easier at the ballot box. I've worked elections, and it's harder to catch voter fraud there. Poll workers tend to be part-time volunteers -- don't make them police officers," he said.
Cate said the Division of Elections expects to see the number of registered voters "continue to increase as we get closer to the presidential election" -- just as it did four years ago.
Meanwhile, Republicans are taking nothing for granted.
Tony Ledbetter, interim chairman of the Volusia County GOP, said volunteers there are "aggressively" combing local registration rolls for bogus or nonexistent voters.
Using strategies developed by True the Vote, a Texas-based group working to "actively protect the rights of legitimate voters regardless of race or party affiliation," Ledbetter said, "We found registrations for 35 people at a trailer park, went to the site and no one was living there.
"We're taking pictures and challenging the state to get them off the rolls," he said.
Earlier this year, an NBC investigation turned up more than 100 bogus voter registrations held by noncitizens in Lee and Collier counties.
Admitting that the 1992 federal Motor Voter law prevents them from authenticating for citizenship, the supervisors of elections said the only way they can investigate voter fraud is if they get a tip.
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.