It's deja vu all over again for Florida voting officials

October 10, 2004|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MIAMI - It has been nearly four years since the nightmare of the 2000 "Florida long count," but the memory haunts election officials in the Sunshine State - along with fears that there could be another such fiasco on Election Day, Nov. 2.

Howard L. Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, says, "It's shaping up again to be a real close election, and if so, officials here will get down on their knees and pray, `Lord, please don't let there be another recount!'"

Florida, led by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, brother of the president, has taken steps to avoid or at least minimize the confusion and injustices that resulted from faulty voting machines. Still, there remain deep concerns about the state's ability to deliver an accurate outcome.

The governor appointed a blue-ribbon commission that made more than 30 recommendations for voter reform, about half of which were adopted.

The trouble-ridden punch-card system that was used in 15 of the state's 67 counties with half of Florida's population in 2000 - and that stamped words such as butterfly ballot, dimples and chads on the American vocabulary - is no more. It has been replaced throughout the state by either optical-scan or touch-screen voting machines. But the replacements have only inspired new questions about their reliability.

About 50 counties use optical scanners, in which ballots are marked and thus can be recounted. But 15 other counties, including Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach in South Florida, where half of all Floridians live, are using touch screens, for which there is no paper trail.

Rep. Robert Wexler, a Palm Beach County Democrat, sued the state in federal court, seeking paper receipts for voters and a single standard for counting ballots regardless of the electronic machine used. His case was rejected by a lower court, but on Sept. 27 a federal appellate court ordered a review.

New arguments also have surfaced over other demands for paper backup and over provisional ballots for voters whose qualifications to cast their votes are challenged. At the same time, questions continue about disenfranchisement of convicted felons and reports of intimidation of minority voters.

On top of all this, the same charges of rank partisanship in favor of the president that were leveled against Jeb Bush and his state administration four years ago are in the air again.

Florida's chief elections official in 2000, Secretary of State Katherine Harris - who simultaneously served as co-chair of the George W. Bush election committee in Florida and handed down several rulings advantageous to her candidate during the long count - has moved on to a seat in Congress.

But the vacancy has been filled by Jeb Bush with former Republican mayor of Orlando and Bush supporter Glenda Hood, who has made other rulings that also have the smell of partisanship. In the eyes of many Florida Democrats, she takes Harris' place as the state's political Cruella deVille.

No less a watchdog of voting practices than former President Jimmy Carter recently wrote that "the same strong bias" shown by Harris in 2000 "has become evident in her successor ... who was a highly partisan elector for George W. Bush in 2000."

Carter, acclaimed for his work in monitoring elections around the world, observed of Florida "that a repetition of the problems of 2000 now seems likely, even as many other nations are conducting elections that are internationally certified to be transparent, honest and fair."

Hood triggered the ire of Democratic and voting-rights experts last spring by ordering the elections division director to instruct voting officials in all 67 counties to purge from the voting ranks the names of 2,100 felons who had served their time and had been granted clemency.

The 2,100 names were part of a much larger secret list of 48,000 names to be purged as felons at the instruction of the Jeb Bush administration, some of whom had successfully filed to have their voting rights restored.

But Florida newspapers and the ACLU got their hands on the list and found that it bore the names of 22,000 (usually Democratic-voting) African-Americans but only 61 (often Republican-voting) Hispanics. When that fact was published, the governor scrubbed that list as well.

"I don't want to be a knee-jerk conspiratorialist and say it's all fueled by dark, partisan motives," Simon says, "but you have to be naive not to think partisan considerations did play a role."

In April, Hood also prohibited manual recounts in the 15 counties using touch-screen machines, on the grounds that recounts were not needed because the machines don't record over-votes, ballots with votes for more than one candidate for the same office. But without a hand count, it is extremely difficult, if at all possible, to guarantee that the electronic count is correct.

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