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Another election, with all the flinching

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By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 15, 2002

Is it that there is no such thing as a foolproof system, or have we, as a species, finally managed to evolve ubermoron, a system-proof fool?

To put it more succinctly, will there ever again be a Florida election where we can dare, during the ensuing weeks, to turn on Jay Leno?

Those of us who live in Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, where Tuesday's election apparently went off with the most minimal of difficulties, should consider ourselves electorally blessed.

There were other places where poll workers didn't show up; didn't, or couldn't, make their new voting machines work; and closed early, despite an executive order to remain open in an effort to give everyone a chance to vote.

Other states have had their fair share of problems throughout the years. I once worked in a county in Illinois where workers at one polling place traditionally drank all day long and then argued long into the night over hand-tallying paper ballots.

In the far distant past, I saw former Pasco Elections Supervisor Mary Morgan actually lose her voice from, well, screaming at people who had screwed things up.

In the days before personal computers, vote tallies in Pasco were taken from mechanical voting machines and written on a massive blackboard in the hallway of the old Pasco County courthouse. The board listed all of the county's precincts and all of the races. If reporters wanted to write comprehensive stories two days after the election (getting results in time for next-day publication was rare), they had to keep their own copies of the blackboard chart, hand-entering thousands of figures and then adding them up on adding machines (later hand-held calculators).

Ancient and unwieldy as the system was, it was still faster and probably more accurate than the average "modern" count in some South Florida counties.

Miami-Dade, a charter county and one where the voters don't get a chance to elect their supervisor, is plagued by troubles this year.

Supervisors in most counties -- as in Pasco, Hernando and Citrus -- are elected (or not) by voters with long memories, and those inconvenienced at the polls, or completely unable to vote, are not likely to remember the experience calmly.

Additionally, when you look for people to work only a couple of days every two years, you aren't always skimming the intellectual cream off the work force. We seem to be lucky locally in having competent people who either volunteer or who work largely out of a sense of civic responsibility and who take their jobs seriously.

But the glaring inadequacy of the people doing the job in some Florida counties, combined with the state's low ranking in several different categories of measuring education, makes us a fair target for comedic laceration on a par with the Beverly Hillbillies and citizens of Dogpatch, who at least have the advantage of being fictional. We are stuck with being real.

We knew there was a chad problem with punch card ballots in Florida years before the word joined the national lexicon in 2000. Elections supervisors used to explain minor inconsistencies in vote recounts by describing the myriad problems chad could cause.

When asked what would happen in a really close election, where minor inconsistencies could become a major problem, they would usually roll their eyes toward the ceiling, display crossed fingers and change the subject.

Crossed fingers, prayers, good luck charms and hoping for lopsided races apparently are no longer sufficient in a system (or collection of systems) apparently unable to count close races with reliable accuracy.

The charitable argument against pure democracy (and one of the reasons we have a democratic republic) has always been that consulting the electorate on every single issue was too unwieldy.

One of the less charitable ones has always been that people are too dumb to govern themselves.

I'm beginning to wish my native state would stop providing evidence to the truthfulness of one -- or maybe, alas, both -- of those propositions.

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