Averting another Florida fiasco

April 15, 2002|By Jules Witcover

ORLANDO, Fla. - With the Florida Democratic Party meeting here over the weekend to showcase a host of 2004 presidential hopefuls, there was news from Washington to reassure them that the election fiasco of 2000, which centered on this state, will be avoided.

By a vote of 99-1, the Senate had just passed a five-year, $3.5 billion election reform bill designed to help states correct the faulty voting machinery and other flaws in the process that contributed to the November 2000 confusion that put George W. Bush in the White House over Al Gore.

With the House having already approved a similar but somewhat more modest ($2.65 billion) version in December, the prospects are good that the reform legislation will soon reach the desk of President Bush. Considering the overwhelming Senate vote, the dollar figure that comes out of a required House-Senate conference will no doubt be closer to the higher Senate number.

The president, while paying lip service to the reforms, didn't go out of his way to spur passage. Understandably, he had no personal complaint with the process, especially here in Florida, which provided him the razor-thin margin in the Electoral College that made him president.

Nevertheless, he commended the Senate for its action and is expected to sign the bill routinely. He may even do so in public, in contrast to his private, unceremonial inking of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation, which he reluctantly swallowed like sour milk.

Florida will get its share of the federal money, but the state Legislature has already moved to reform or eliminate much of the apparatus and procedures that caused such controversy. They had the Democrats and the Gore campaign crying foul during the 36 days of counting, recounting and political maneuverings on both sides before the Supreme Court stepped in.

The Legislature has already banned the use of the infamous punch-card machines that led to the embarrassing saga of the chads - the sometimes hanging, sometimes dimpled paper snippets that had Florida voting officials playing guessing games about the validity of votes cast.

Likewise eliminated are the "butterfly ballots," so confusing in 2000 that conservative Pat Buchanan, running as the Reform candidate, garnered a suspiciously large vote in an area of traditionally heavy Democratic voting.

The Legislature also has ordered the establishment of a database of voters to check their eligibility by computer. Many Florida voters claimed they were turned away at the polls on Election Day, and some said they were erroneously identified as former felons ineligible to vote.

The Senate version allows for provisional ballot-casting by voters whose eligibility is in question, with their votes counted upon later confirmation of their eligibility. Another provision opposed by some civil liberties groups would require those voting by mail for the first time to produce a printed document of some kind to establish their identification.

The Congressional Black Caucus, which was concerned about reports that many black voters in northern Florida had been inhibited or intimidated from casting ballots in the 2000 election, endorsed the Senate bill.

The lone senator to vote against the reforms was Republican Conrad Burns of Montana, who argued that the bill was "one size fits all" and would not help rural states. But while the Senate bill does mandate more changes than the House version, both bills give considerable leeway to the states.

The bill that will finally go to President Bush will not cure all the election ills uncovered by the 2000 presidential election, in Florida especially, and it will not satisfy everybody. Nor, certainly, will it quell the continuing lament from Democrats that the Florida fiasco robbed their man, Al Gore, of the presidency. But it should make a rerun of that world-class controversy less likely in the future.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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