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    Disabled voting bill clears panel

    Election supervisors worry that the bill would require costly changes to new equipment counties are buying.

    By LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 20, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- A bill that would enable thousands of disabled Floridians to vote without assistance won approval Tuesday in a House committee but faces an uncertain future because of a $58-million price tag.

    No one openly criticized the bill as the House Ethics and Elections Committee heard from a series of supporters who compared the measure to changes in voting laws that helped minorities and women gain the right to vote.

    But Ron Labasky, lobbyist for the state's elections supervisors, cautioned the committee that the bill may require costly alterations to new voting equipment being purchased for millions of dollars in many Florida counties. The bill also may require other expenditures to make voting precincts accessible to the handicapped.

    "Our concern is money," Labasky said.

    He said he doesn't believe any of the voting technology being purchased will meet the standards demanded in the bill.

    Doug Towne of St. Petersburg, speaking for the Florida Coalition for Disability Rights, said other states are watching Florida to determine what they need to do to fix a flawed voting system.

    "If you vote no, you condemn people with disabilities to second-class citizenship," said Towne, who is blind.

    Rep. Larry Crow, R-Palm Harbor, the sponsor of the bill, called it "an issue of fundamental fairness."

    "Americans once objected to letting women and minorities vote," Crow said. "We all know these things were abhorrent. People with disabilities fall into the same category."

    The bill was introduced after a task force organized by Secretary of State Katherine Harris made a series of recommendations. Harris has called the bill an important step toward giving every Floridian the right to vote.

    "The millions we've spent to fix Florida's election system would mean nothing if we refuse to finish the job," Harris said when her task force completed its work last month.

    Complaints that led to the appointment of the task force and the introduction of bills arose during the 2000 presidential election recount. Dozens of people with various disabilities complained about being denied the right to vote a secret ballot without having someone help them.

    Under current law, blind people must have someone assist them in marking a ballot, but the technology exists to allow them to vote without assistance.

    The bill would require the state to provide an alternative ballot or voting machine that would allow anyone with physical impairments to cast a secret, independent and verifiable ballot.

    Several of those who testified Tuesday challenged the price tag put on the bill by the House, saying they think the changes could be done at a much lower cost.

    The bill goes next to the House appropriations committee, where its financial impact is likely to be questioned. A similar bill is pending in the Senate but has not been heard by a committee.

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    From the Times state desk