Viewpoint: Florida facing more election headaches

As the Bush administration attempts to pass a new law giving it the authority to suspend national elections in the event of a terror attack, harbingers of election troubles ahead are cropping up in Florida.

Three years ago, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announced a new voting system he claimed would be a “model for the rest of the nation.” Yet today, Florida officials are wrestling with some of the same problems that plagued the vote there in 2000.

Critics say there also are some new problems that may prove worse than the days of hanging chads.

Florida has adopted touch-screen voting machines, that officials hoped would eliminate many of the headaches that attended their last election. Instead, they have raised a number of new concerns with the election only four months away.

A new rule in Florida exempts the machines from manual recounts, and a problem turned up in the audit process in some machines. That means there is no way to track votes or uncover any errors.

Last week, voting rights groups filed a lawsuit challenging the new rule, and a Democratic congressman sued to demand a paper trail of every vote cast. The controversy is but one of the challenges facing Florida. There also is an uproar over the purge lists that disenfranchised about 50,000 minority voters in 2000.

In addition, questions exist about training poll workers on new policies and how to process an avalanche of new registrations.

Last Saturday, state officials announced they would not use a purge list supplied by a Texas company to remove convicted felons from voter roles. Officials admitted Hispanic felons were not on the list, just African-American residents who mostly vote Democratic. Hispanics have generally supported Republicans in recent elections.

Secretary of State Glenda Hood, appointed by Gov. Bush last year, earlier brushed aside concerns of lawmakers and advocacy groups about the list. The state made the list public only after a judge ordered it to do so.

A hearing will take place this week in Washington before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, which issued a blistering report on the last election in Florida. The commission will look at problems with the purge list.

Bonnie Brinegar, president of the League of Women Voters of Miami-Dade County, commented: “The most important thing is to really show the voters that there are reasons to have confidence in these systems. But the mantra has been ‘trust us’ and that is not good enough.”

A spokesman for Gov. Bush, Jacob DiPietre, said the governor is “taking full responsibility” for the problem with the list, adding: “His No. 1 priority is to have a seamless election and an election where people have confidence that their vote will be counted.”

The country was stunned in 2000 when a 36-day recount followed the voting. That’s expected to produce a major area of contention this time as well, with President Bush (the governor’s brother) and Sen. John Kerry battling for the state’s 27 electoral votes. Bush won Florida by only 537 votes last time, but many thousands of ballots were cast aside because of voter errors on poorly designed ballots and other problems.

The Republican-dominated legislature in 2001 passed a revision of the voting system that outlawed punch card ballots, gave counties money for new voting equipment and set recount guidelines. Two-thirds of the recommendations of a bipartisan task force appointed by the governor were adopted by the lawmakers. Some of the more politically sensitive issues were left alone.

They included a recommendation to make county election supervisors non-partisan positions and to review Florida’s policy of permanently stripping felons of voting rights. The package adopted by the legislature has proven to be something of a time bomb. It contains a provision to keep voter registration records secret. A state judge struck it down on July 2 and opened the way for a close examination of the felon list.

Newspapers in the state reported the list had one obvious problem: it contained no Hispanic felons, who tend to vote Republican, while thousands of blacks, who mostly vote Democratic, may be purged. Gov. Bush moved to drop that idea, but he wasn’t quick enough to avoid charges from Democratic legislators and groups. They blasted the overall effort to revise the voting system as an effort by Florida Republicans to give the president an advantage.

Hood, a Republican and former mayor of Orlando, who was appointed by Gov. Bush, has distanced herself from politics but still has created doubts by dismissing criticism of the system and not answering questions adequately.

Florida’s director of elections, Ed Kast, quit abruptly last month, stating he wants to pursue other interests. Sandy Wayland, a member of the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition, said that only deepened public distrust.

The Coalition last month asked Hood’s office to permit an independent review of touch-screen machines, which are used in 15 of Florida’s 67 counties.

Hood’s office said only counties are authorized to request such audits. The office said such efforts by the Coalition only serve to undermine voter confidence.

The Coalition obtained documents from election officials that revealed a problem with touch-screen machines’ ability to audit election results. The documents showed officials were aware of the problem in June 2003.

Wayland is one of many who contend Miami-Dade and some other counties adopted touch-screen technology too soon. The other 52 counties use optical scan machines, which turn out records that can be manually recounted.

Source: The New York Times.

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