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Citing 'Zero Tolerance' For Voter Fraud, RNC Fires Firm Over Florida Questions

A big embarrassment came this week for the Republican Party, which has made voting integrity and fighting voter fraud a major issue.

A consulting firm hired by the Republican National Committee to register voters in five battleground states has been let go after one of its workers apparently submitted over 100 questionable registration forms in Florida's Palm Beach County.

The party severed its ties with the firm — Strategic Allied Consulting — because it has "zero tolerance" for voter fraud, said RNC spokesman Sean Spicer.

"We take allegations of anything that would undermine the integrity of elections very seriously," Spicer said. The RNC paid the company, which was formed by an Arizona political consultant, $3 million to register voters in Florida, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia.

The company hired individuals to go out and sign up voters. But workers in Palm Beach County's election office became suspicious when they saw registration forms with similar-looking signatures and other irregularities, such as commercial instead of residential addresses. Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher said she took her concerns to local Republicans, who arranged a meeting with a representative of the company, who then helped identify even more questionable forms.

Local authorities are investigating, and so too is the state.

Chris Cate, a spokesman for the Florida secretary of state's office, said suspicious registrations have been uncovered in six counties, although he said it's not clear yet if they were all from the same firm.

The incident is embarrassing to Republicans for several reasons.

First, the party has used the issue of voter fraud to push new voting restrictions in Florida and elsewhere. The laws have become a major point of contention in the current campaign. Democrats say the laws — which include voter ID requirements and limits on voter registration drives — are intended to suppress the votes of minorities and others who tend to vote Democratic. Republicans say Democrats aren't interested in preventing voter fraud — although evidence of such fraud is rare.

Secondly, Spicer said the Florida incident looks like a case of "one bad apple" in an organization. And indeed, Strategic Allied Consulting's attorney, Fred Petti, issued a statement saying that the company has "zero tolerance" for breaking the law and "accordingly, once we learned of the irregularities in Palm Beach County, we were able to trace all questionable cards to one individual and immediately terminated our working relationship with the individual in question." He did not name the person.

But this is almost exactly the same response that the community organizing group ACORN gave when it was accused of filing fraudulent voter registration forms in past elections — a response that was widely rejected by Republicans.

The RNC made ACORN a major target in the 2008 presidential campaign, accusing it of widespread voter fraud and trying to link the organization to then-candidate Barack Obama — implying that the Democrat wanted to use fraudulent votes to win.

The third reason this is embarrassing for Republicans is that Strategic Allied Consulting was formed by an Arizona consultant named Nathan Sproul, whose past registration efforts have been the subject of numerous allegations of irregularities. In several instances, those working for Sproul — whose company has operated under several different names — were accused of discarding registration forms filled out by Democrats. The allegations were investigated, but no charges were filed.

Sproul did not return messages from NPR, but he told NBC News on Thursday that the company hired between 4,000 and 5,000 individuals to register voters for the RNC, and that the individuals received instructions not to falsify forms. However, he added: "No matter what quality controls you have, there are always going to be bad actors in any large-scale operation."

Sean Spicer said the RNC won't ask Sproul for its money back, because the voter registration efforts are complete. Spicer did not know how many people the company signed up to vote in the five states.

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Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.