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Even with new chief, election doubts linger
As the presidential election nears, Secretary of State Glenda Hood says the problems of 2000 won't be repeated.
By LUCY MORGAN
Published July 14, 2004
Glenda Hood says she doesn't dwell on 2000. "Everything is different," she says.
TALLAHASSEE - Florida and its elections chief were vilified by Democrats, excoriated in newspaper editorials and carved up by late-night comedians after the contested 2000 election.
Now Katherine Harris is in Congress, another presidential election looms - and Florida and Harris' successor are facing renewed questions about whether the state can properly run an election.
Critics complain that new touch screen voting machines lack a paper trail for manual recounts, a glitch in some machines was fixed only recently, and thousands of petitions have been sent to the state urging a return to paper ballots.
And Saturday, Secretary of State Glenda Hood abruptly abandoned a flawed list of thousands of potential felons who could have been removed from the voter rolls.
Like Harris four years ago, Hood now finds herself standing alongside Gov. Jeb Bush at the center of another election controversy.
"The idea that we should trust Gov. Bush or Mrs. Hood with our right to vote is an unrealistic expectation," said U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, who unsuccessfully sued the state to try to force it to create a paper trail for recounts and is appealing. "It's a pattern of deception and a pattern of purposeful actions to prevent certain Floridians who vote Democratic from voting. This is Jim Crow in Florida in 2004. George Wallace would be proud."
Bush and state legislators had hoped to make Florida a national model by now.
After the 2000 election, a task force studied the problems, the Legislature changed some laws and 15 counties spent millions buying the latest in voting technology. Hood, Orlando's longtime mayor, was appointed to replace Harris.
But the nation is expecting the worst from Florida again.
"It seems like everything is being criticized," Hood said Tuesday. "But I cannot allow myself to be drawn into the fray. That's why I remain positive. I care about this state and I see this as my job, my role."
She said everything Florida does is under a microscope, and it's a "very divisive environment." But Hood remains convinced the changes put in place over the past four years, the hard work of county elections officials and an unprecedented voter education campaign will produce a good election.
Florida's secretary of state was an elected position when Harris was harshly criticized for serving as honorary co-chair of George W. Bush's Florida campaign while overseeing state elections. By then, voters already had amended the state Constitution to make the post an appointed position.
Bush named Hood in early 2003 amid praise from fellow mayors, who said she was up to the task of restoring credibility to the state's badly tattered election process. Hood promised she would play no role in political campaigns, saying political activity was incompatible with overseeing elections.
While Democrats are hoping to keep the election issue alive to energize their supporters, Hood said she is only looking ahead.
"I'm a totally different person, this is a totally different agency now," Hood said. "Everything is different. I don't go back and compare us to the past. A lot of people are living in 2000. This is 2004."
A statewide list of felons was required by the state in 1998 in the wake of a Miami election scandal in which 105 felons were found to have illegally cast ballots. Harris produced the first list in 2000, and untold numbers of voters were found to have been erroneously listed as felons and removed from voter rolls. The NAACP sued and the state reached a settlement aimed at reducing errors.
Instead, this year's list also proved to be flawed.
Hood tried to keep the list secret, saying state law declared it was not a public record. But Leon Circuit Judge Nikki Clark declared the law unconstitutional and ordered the state to release the list.
More than 2,000 people on the list already had gotten their right to vote restored. Blacks, who are mostly Democrats, were disproportionately represented on the list. Hispanics, who tend to be Republicans, were underrepresented.
Hood's aides were initially dismissive of the problems, then backtracked when questions continued to be raised.
After weeks of defending the list of felons, Hood scrapped it Saturday, leaving each county election supervisor responsible for identifying felons and removing them from the voter rolls.
"We took immediate action when we realized it was a problem," Hood said.
But Hood's about-face raised further questions.
"This smells to high heaven," said Ralph G. Neas, president of People For the American Way, a liberal political foundation. "It strains credulity to think that Hispanics were somehow left off the list, while African-Americans remained on the list."
Hood also defends the touch-screen machines that will be used by 15 Florida counties, including Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco.
"We've taken steps to make sure we have the best technology available today," Hood said. "It has delivered successful elections since 2002."
Although Hood's Division of Elections has a high-profile role in establishing rules, approving voting machines and totaling returns, much of the hands-on work is done by Florida's 67 local elections supervisors. State law gives each supervisor the authority to select voting machines from a state-approved list, create ballots, appoint poll workers and tabulate votes.
Some observers give Hood high marks for understanding the elections process and helping local officials deal with problems. Harris was criticized because she seemed unfamiliar with election laws.
"She is engaged in the process," Pasco County Elections Supervisor Kurt Browning said. "She knows the issues, and she's been there for us with voting systems."
Orange County Elections Supervisor Bill Cowles also credits Hood with doing a good job.
"She is talking to supervisors, enlisting input and reacting to problems," said Cowles, president of the statewide association of elections supervisors.
"With Harris," Cowles said, "it was clear elections were not her priority."
But others see no improvement from four years ago.
"I think they fell short," state Rep. Bob Henriquez, D-Tampa, said of Hood's elections office. "We've had four years to rectify the situation. We still haven't resolved this situation. We've failed voters."
- Times staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.