(Reuters) - Election officials in Florida were scouring their records for fraudulent voter registration forms on Friday after the Republican Party said it had fired a company hired to gather new voters because of reports its employees may have submitted bogus forms.
The Palm Beach County elections office first reported finding 106 potentially fraudulent registration forms earlier this week that had been submitted by Strategic Allied Consulting (SAC), a Virginia firm hired by Florida's Republican Party.
Since then scores more suspicious forms have been detected in at least five other Florida counties where election officials say SAC worked to register voters.
Federal Election Commission reports from the state Republican Party show it paid SAC more than $1.3 million this summer for voter registration services.
SAC was also hired to do voter registration work for the Republican Party in four other key swing states - Nevada, Virginia, Colorado, and North Carolina - for a total of $2.9 million, according to the Republican National Committee (RNC).
"When we learned on Tuesday about the instances of potential voter registration fraud that occurred in Palm Beach County, we immediately informed the Republican National Committee that we were terminating the contract with the voter registration vendor we hired at their request because there is no place for voter registration fraud in Florida," state Republican Party Executive Director Mike Grissom said in a statement.
The RNC, as well as the Republican Party in the other four states, also severed ties with SAC. "We have zero tolerance for any threat to the integrity of elections," RNC spokesman Sean Spicer said in a statement.
SAC issued a statement late on Friday saying the forms in question were "isolated incidents of individuals trying to cheat the system."
It said it had registered more than 500,000 voters over the last eight years in more than 40 states, and criticized the "likely libelous comments" by the Florida Republican Party about its efforts in the state.
"Strategic took swift action and terminated the identified individual (in Palm Beach) the same day that the alleged fraud was brought to Strategic's attention," the statement said.
"Strategic is committed to working with state officials and law enforcement agencies to identify and prosecute those individuals responsible for voter registration fraud," it added.
The company was formed in June by Nathan Sproul, a conservative Arizona political consultant and a former executive director of the state's Republican Party, according to The Los Angeles Times.
In 2008, ACORN - the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now - registered more than 1 million mostly low-income voters, who tend to vote Democratic. Thousands of those registrations ended up being fake, submitted by ACORN-hired workers who were paid based on how many names they registered.
The scandal led to the demise of ACORN and inspired some of the anti-fraud laws impacting registration drives this year.
'EQUAL OPPORTUNITY OFFENDERS'
The alarm over the latest potential fraud was first raised by Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher, who flagged 106 "questionable" registration applications turned in by SAC this month. Bucher said her staff had raised questions about suspiciously similar signatures and incorrect addresses and dates of birth on the forms.
Some of the applications were for new voters while others were for changes to address or party affiliation, Bucher told Reuters. While the 106 application forms all bore the Republican Party of Florida's identification number, there did not appear to be an overwhelming partisan bias in the forms.
"They were equal opportunity offenders. They were being paid an hourly wage so I think that was the motivation," she said.
In a few cases the party affiliation was changed from Democrat to Republican and in some cases the addresses of real people were altered, potentially affecting their ability to vote.
Bucher, who was elected on a nonpartisan platform but supports the Democratic Party, said she turned over copies of the applications to the State Attorney's office this week. Officials have not said if an investigation of the company's actions is underway.
Election supervisors in at least five Florida counties were checking forms submitted by the Florida Republican Party for similar problems, she said.
Paul Lux, supervisor of elections in Okaloosa County, located in the northwest Florida Panhandle, wrote an email on Thursday to other state election supervisors warning them "to be on the lookout," for bogus forms.
More than 2,600 registration forms were submitted to his office by SAC, said Lux. He said dozens of forms contained suspicious data including fake-looking signatures and phony addresses, and had been turned over to the State Attorney's office. Others were still being reviewed.
About 100 suspect forms also showed up in nearby Santa Rosa County, he said.
Submitting deliberately false voter registration information, or altering information on an application without consent, is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.