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Students complain of false party swap

Scores of college students say they were tricked into changing their registration to the Republican Party when signing petitions.

DAVID KARP
Published October 23, 2004

As a first-time voter, Brittany Goodwin was excited when her voter registration card arrived in August.

Then her father told her that she had registered Republican.

""Nooooo," she groaned.

Goodwin, a University of South Florida freshman and Democrat, was among dozens of college students who say they were tricked into registering as Republicans at USF's Tampa campus.

It happened to hundreds of other students at college campuses in Tallahassee, Gainesville and Orlando.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating and Secretary of State Glenda Hood has urged students to call election offices before they vote.

The prime suspect is a group hired by the National Republican Committee to register voters.

About 4,000 students may have been improperly registered at the University of Florida, Florida A&M University and Florida State, officials say. In Tampa, the elections office has received several dozen calls from USF students who were switched to the GOP. USF police also got four complaints from students who described how canvassers deceived them.

One complaint said a group was getting students to sign voter registration cards that were premarked for Republicans. Another student told USF police the group would get students to sign two petitions and then check them off as Republicans after they left.

Goodwin, 18, was attending orientation at USF when someone asked her to sign a petition against child abusers. Goodwin said to mark her as a Democrat.

She noticed him check Republican, but she was so busy she didn't say anything. "I had never done a registration before," she said.

Katie Glenz, 19, a Hillsborough Community College sophomore, signed a petition for the legalization of marijuana. She also signed another form, but wasn't sure what it was.

The woman even offered Glenz a job collecting signatures. "It was like a lot of money - $1,600 or something a week," Glenz said.

Joe Burns, a USF sophomore, filled out a petition for stiffer sentences for child abusers. He questioned why they needed him to fill out a second form.

"It is just something I need to do," they told him.

He signed his name and checked no party affiliation. When he got his voter card, it was marked Republican. "It was somebody else's handwriting," Burns said.

Outside the USF library, Adrienne DeVore, 20, also signed a petition to legalize the medical use of marijuana.

"Can I check Republican?" the woman said. If she did, the Republican Party would help fund their cause, the woman told her.

DeVore, a sophomore, thought that was strange because she didn't think Republicans favored legalizing marijuana.

Her boyfriend repeatedly asked the group whom they worked for. One person told him the Young Republicans. Another said they worked for a company called YPM.

Young Political Majors LLC, or YPM, is a company registered by Mark Jacoby at a Town 'N Country residence.

Jacoby appeared this summer at the election office in Gainesville with a box of about 1,200 voter registration cards. Of those, about 510 voters had switched to the GOP.

Elections Supervisor Beverly Hill spoke with Jacoby and grew suspicious. She randomly called the Republicans to verify they wanted to switch. All of them said, "Absolutely not," Hill said. "They didn't even know they had signed a registration form," Hill said.

Jacoby could not be reached for comment. His company worked for a company called JSM Inc., which in turn worked for Arno Political Consultants, a Sacramento, Calif., firm that qualified 300 ballot initiatives in 20 states.

The firm's largely conservative clients include the Bush/Quayle campaign, the National Rifle Association and RJ Reynolds. The company has also worked for Florida's class size amendment.

The Republican National Committee hired Arno for a voter registration drive, said Mindy Tucker Fletcher, a senior adviser to the Florida GOP. Campaign finance reports show the RNC paid Arno $450,000 in one reporting period in September.

"We are just hoping the authorities look into it and are able to get to the bottom of it," Tucker Fletcher said.

It doesn't help the party to register Democrats as Republicans if they don't vote for Bush, Tucker Fletcher said.

Owner Bill Arno said the firm was registering voters in Florida, Ohio, Oregon and Nevada for the RNC. He declined to say what he was paid for the Florida effort, except to say he earned a monthly flat rate.

He said the company had measures in place to prevent fraud. Jacoby showed Arno copies of voter registration cards in which voters initialed their party change, Arno said.

"It's in their handwriting. They signed it. They checked the party affiliation," Arno said. "Why would they have a change of heart?"

Arno said his workers asked voters to sign a petition supporting President Bush. They also told voters they worked for the Republican Party, he said.

"Our company has worked for years to try to eliminate fraud in my industry," said Arno, who pledged to cooperate with authorities. "If it was one of our people or some rival group's activity, I think those people should be rooted out. And if a crime was committed, I support their arrest and prosecution."

David Karp can be reached at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 8430 or karp@sptimes.com

WHAT YOU CAN DO

If you suspect a problem with your voter registration, check with the Supervisor of Elections Office in your county before going to vote. In Hillsborough, the number is (813) 272-5850. If you suspect fraud, call the Florida Voter Fraud Hotline at toll-free 1-877-868-3737.

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