Ballot wording sparks worries
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
The new statewide ballot that will help debut Florida's improved election system contains hints of the same confusion that brought disaster in November 2000.
In the Sept. 10 Democratic primary for governor, the ballot tells people to "Vote for One Pair," meaning one candidate for governor and one for lieutenant governor.
But critics say the word "pair" does not apply because none of the gubernatorial candidates has chosen a running mate. They worry that the phrase could encourage some voters to select more than one candidate for governor, an "overvote" that would nullify their choice.
The two leading campaigns in the governor's primary on Friday expressed outrage.
"The whole world is watching us. A mistake like this is a total embarrassment for the state," said Nicole Harburger, a spokeswoman for Janet Reno. "This ballot virtually guarantees that people in Florida will be overvoting and that ballots will be lost in the process."
Alan Stonecipher, a spokesman for Bill McBride, said: "It's incredible but I guess not surprising the administration, the secretary of state . . . can't get an election right. It's really appalling."
His remark was a reference to former Secretary of State Katherine Harris, whose controversial tenure at the helm of Florida's election system ended this week with her resignation after a string of black eyes for her department.
The wording "Vote for One Pair" was the work of Sarah Jane Bradshaw, who joined Harris' office this year after years as the widely respected director of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee. This week, after Harris' departure, Bradshaw became assistant director of the Elections Division.
She said Friday that the new wording was an attempt to make the ballot "as clear as possible" by replacing language that was even more confusing. She said she has already heard complaints about the new language and about other changes to Florida's election rules.
"I feel very confident that we will be addressing and fine-tuning the rules after the election," Bradshaw said, adding: "Election law is an ongoing process."
The phrase "Vote for One Pair" was chosen to replace the ballot instructions "Vote for Group" and "Vote for One Group," which election officials blamed for prompting thousands of Floridians to vote for more than one presidential ticket in November 2000.
More than 110,000 Floridians nullified their ballots with overvotes in the razor-thin race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. More than half of those voters -- a total of 59,138 -- lived in counties where ballots told them to vote for a "group."
Some say the replacement phrase, "Vote for One Pair," is just as confusing.
Bradshaw said it was done with the knowledge that one or more of the gubernatorial candidates could, by now, have chosen a running mate for lieutenant governor, making a "pair" of candidates.
The problem is that Democratic hopefuls McBride, Reno and Daryl Jones have chosen to pick a running mate after the Sept. 10 primary. There is no "pair" of candidates on this year's primary ballot, only each candidate's name with the words "Not Yet Designated" below. That phrase was created by the Legislature after the 1998 governor's election.
Both phrases are confusing, said Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Pam Iorio, a leading figure in Florida's efforts to improve elections.
Of the term, "Not Yet Designated," Iorio said: "Who's not designated? What's not designated? What does designated mean?"
She said the term "Vote for One Pair" doesn't work because "there's only one thing to vote for."
Bradshaw said the division made the change after consulting many people, including legislators and supervisors of elections.
Last year, at the urging of the division, a committee of supervisors met to establish guidelines for ballots and decided that "Vote for One" would be a good instruction for all races, even when two candidates run as a ticket. But Bradshaw did not take that suggestion.
"There are a number of things in the division rules that I think need to be changed," Iorio said. "There's still a disconnect in election administration between the people who actually run elections at the county level and know the score and the division at the state level, who have never run an election and are telling us what to do."
The ballots cannot be changed in time for the primary, and most counties are printing them and sending out samples this month. Fortunately for most Florida voters, the impact will be limited.
It is impossible to vote twice in a race on the new computerized "touch screen" voting machines that have been installed in 15 counties. Also, new scanning machines in Florida's 52 paper ballot counties will detect "overvotes" before voters exit the polls.
The impact will fall on thousands of absentee voters in all 67 Florida counties. There is no mechanism that would catch their mistake if they overvoted by taking literally the instruction to "Vote for One Pair."
In interviews this week, several county election supervisors said the gubernatorial ballot could create confusion. But others foresaw no major problems.
Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning, another leading figure in Florida's election reform, said space is at a premium on ballots, which limits one's options in writing instructions. Other times, it's a matter of perspective.
Browning said he just sent out voter identification cards that he thought were crystal clear. Yet some voters are calling his office, confused and full of questions.
State Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, said most absentee voters are not likely to be stumped by the ballot because people who take the trouble to vote in a primary or get an absentee ballot are generally more engaged in the electoral process.
Sebesta, a former supervisor of elections, helped shape the election reform act that was passed by the Legislature last year. He agreed the ballot could be confusing and said he would ask the Ethics and Elections Committee to consider drafting a change.
"It's that great old saying," he added. "20/20 hindsight is wonderful."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times state desk
From the state wire