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Improving on a good voting system

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 20, 2002

If you are looking for a flawless election -- no hanging chads, no outside monitors, no delays in vote-counting, no disputed outcome -- go to Iraq. Last week more than 11-million Iraqi voters went to the polls to elect a president. Talk about a landslide, Saddam Hussein won 100 percent of the vote. Would you vote against the Butcher of Baghdad, who was unopposed, and sign your name on the ballot, as Iraqi voters are required to do?

In a democracy things are messier. Elections are often flawed, botched ballots have to be tossed, machines malfunction and the outcome is not always neat. But our system, for all its imperfections, is still the best in the world, and we're still improving it -- updating voting machinery and making it easier for people to register and to vote. The real disgrace is our dismal voter turnout.

As Florida prepares for the Nov. 5 election, about the only thing we can be sure of is that the election is not likely to go as smoothly as the voting in Iraq. I'll be surprised if Broward and Miami-Dade counties, the state's Democratic strongholds, don't find a way to make Florida a laughingstock, the way they did in the 2000 presidential election and in this year's gubernatorial primary, which left Democrat Bill McBride hanging like a chad. He had to wait more than a week to claim his party's nomination because of election foulups in Broward and Miami-Dade.

Last week Miami-Dade officials voted to hire, at a cost of $92,000, outside election monitors to make sure corruption and incompetence don't disenfranchise voters. The Center for Democracy, known for monitoring elections in Third World countries, will station observers at the polls to make sure technical and planning problems don't keep voters from casting ballots. It was a controversial -- and embarrassing -- move that split the Miami-Dade Commission, with Cuban-American commissioners saying they resented seeing their county treated like some corrupt Third World nation.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it will provide civil rights monitors in Miami-Dade and several other counties at the request of Florida Secretary of State Jim Smith. Bill McBride 's campaign spokesman, Alan Stonecipher, immediately questioned whether it was an attempt by Attorney General John Aschroft to intimidate Democratic voters and again blamed South Florida's election problems on Gov. Jeb Bush . Stonecipher underestimates the intelligence of most Floridians who, polls show, put the blame where it belongs -- on local elections officials.

It will take more than outside monitors to ensure a smooth election in Broward County unless local election officials can clean up the mess made by the county's incompetent Democratic election supervisor, Miriam Oliphant. On primary day, 300 Broward poll workers didn't show up for work, and neither did two dozen clerks in charge of precincts. After the Sept. 10 primary disaster, Broward officials gently nudged her aside (she keeps her title and salary) and brought in Joseph Cotter to take charge of elections. The first thing he discovered was that Oliphant had overspent her budget by $900,000. He has asked the county for $1-million to make sure the primary disaster is not repeated on Nov. 5.

Last week Cotter also found that 18 of the county's new touch-screen voting machines, which cost $3,000 each, were missing. "This is $54,000 in taxpayers' money that we can't find," Cotter said. "No records, or very inadequate records, were apparently maintained of who took the machines from the warehouse and where they were going."

Broward commissioners are wondering what else Cotter will find. "Every day there is another surprise," said Commissioner Kristin Jacobs. "I just look forward for this election to be over so we can regroup and start fresh. This is absolutely numbing by now."

In Washington, meanwhile, Congress finally broke a partisan stalemate and passed an election reform bill -- the Help America Vote Act -- that expands the federal role in how voters are registered and elections are conducted. The bill authorizes almost $4-billion over the next three years to help states modernize voting equipment, train poll workers, establish accurate statewide lists of registered voters and make voting places more accessible to people with disabilities.

To win Republican backing, Democrats added provisions, including identification requirements for voters, to discourage illegal voting. Under the bill, which President Bush is expected to sign, new voters who register by mail would be required to present some proof of identity -- a photo identification card such as a driver's license, a utility bill, a bank statement, a paycheck or a government document showing their name and address -- before voting.

That doesn't strike me as an unreasonable requirement, but Sens. Chuck Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, both New York Democrats, cast the only no votes in the Senate. Clinton explained her opposition by saying the identification requirements could discourage recently naturalized American citizens, homeless people and minorities from participating in elections.

If Hillary Clinton really wants to know why people are discouraged from voting, maybe she should visit Broward and Miami-Dade and get a reality check. Or better still, she should take a close look at New York's own voting system. She might discover that voter identification is the least of New York's problems.

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