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TALLAHASSEE - Despite Florida's rapid growth, the number of voters in the state has dropped to its lowest level in three years, a trend that could have an impact in a close, high-turnout presidential election in 2008.
On the surface, it's a stunning contradiction: a shrinking pool of voters in a high-growth state.
The main reason for the dropoff is a state law that requiring that in odd-numbered years, voter rolls be purged of people who have moved but never updated their addresses and those who have skipped two straight statewide elections.
Voters who move and don't respond to mail notices from an elections office are listed as inactive. They can still vote, but they are not counted as registered voters.
An inactive voter who skips two consecutive statewide elections is removed and must re-register to vote.
Since November, more than 63,000 voters in Pinellas County and more than 57,000 in Hillsborough County have been listed as inactive or removed from the rolls. In Pinellas, that's nearly one of every 10 voters who were registered last fall.
The Legislature changed the law in 2005 to limit the ability of election supervisors to keep voters on the rolls, placing more of a burden on voters to act when their voting status changes.
"The voter has to take the initiative to update their address now," said Linda Tanko, an official in the Orange County elections office in Orlando.
Under the old law, elections officials who were notified by the U.S. Postal Service that a voter had moved could update the voter's records and contact the voter at the new address.
The new law requires that election officials send reminders to the voter's old, incorrect address.
"It's inane. It's just crazy," said the state's chief elections official, Secretary of State Kurt Browning. "The whole idea is to keep people on the voter registration roll."
Browning said he would ask lawmakers to change the law back to the way it was before 2005.
Florida today has 10.2-million voters, about 150,000 fewer than were eligible to vote in November. The disappearance of voters from the roll affects Republicans and Democrats about equally. Independent voters drop off less frequently.
The subject of removing nonvoters from the rolls remains a touchy topic in Florida, because of the state's checkered past involving elections.
Lee County in southwest Florida has purged more than 78,000 voters from its rolls since the last statewide election in November. The figure is the most of any county and is nearly a fourth of the heavily Republican county's entire pool of voters.
Supervisor of Elections Sharon Harrington said the number is high because the county had fallen behind in maintaining its list.
"They probably should have been deleted over the past 10 years," Harrington said. "We're getting down to a good, clean database, which is what we needed to do."
Election experts say another reason for disappearing voters is that some of them never were voters in the first place.
So-called motor-voter laws, like one in Florida, make it easy to register to vote in many public places. As a result, experts say, many people register as voters simply to get the card as another form of ID.
Voter registration cards are accepted as proof of residency for everything from applying for a homestead exemption to securing in-state tuition rates in college.
"There's any number of reasons," Harrington said.
In Orlando, Tanko said, elections clerks even have a name for these committed nonvoters: "dead weight."
Elections officials say the voter roll will grow as interest in the 2008 presidential vote builds, and interest groups launch registration drives.
But the list of voters is likely to get smaller before it gets bigger, because some large counties have not completed the required maintenance of their voting lists.