GOP flier questions new voting equipment

As Gov. Bush defends touch screen machines, his party urges using absentee ballots to "Make sure your vote counts."

Published July 29, 2004

BOSTON - While Gov. Jeb Bush reassures Floridians that touch screen voting machines are reliable, the Republican Party is sending the opposite message to some voters.

The GOP urged some Miami voters to use absentee ballots because touch screens lack a paper trail and cannot "verify your vote."

That's the same argument Democrats have made but which Bush, his elections director and Republican legislators have repeatedly rejected.

"The liberal Democrats have already begun their attacks and the new electronic voting machines do not have a paper ballot to verify your vote in case of a recount," says a glossy mailer, paid for by the Republican Party of Florida and prominently featuring two pictures of President Bush. "Make sure your vote counts. Order your absentee ballot today."

The GOP tactic is the reverse of what Bush and state elections experts have said as they have repeatedly opposed Democratic moves, in the Legislature and courts, to require a paper trail on the machines.

A coalition of liberal and civil rights groups have filed a lawsuit seeking to force state elections officials to create a system for manual recounts of touch screen results.

Miami-Dade is one of 15 counties that switched from punch-card ballots to touch screens after the 2000 recount. But absentee ballots are filled out on paper and tallied on optical scan machines because the ballot is sent through the mail.

The Republican flier is part of a hard-fought GOP primary for a state House seat in Miami where absentee ballots could make a difference.

The mailing surfaced at the Democratic National Convention Wednesday and stirred outrage by Florida delegates and elected officials.

"I've seen that advertisement. It's appalling," said Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. "It is an acknowledgement that there are excessive error rates with touch screens even by the party in power."

"That is awful. That is disgusting. Despicable," said state Sen. Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach. "Why use dirty tricks to scare people?"

"It's unbelievable," said state Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston. "They're the ones who won't certify a machine to attach a paper trail."

A Bush spokeswoman said the governor had not see the flier beforehand and did not approve of the criticism of the touch screen machines.

"The governor certainly does not support that message," said Bush spokeswoman Jill Bratina. "People need to have confidence in these machines."

The Republican Party of Florida paid to send the mailing to voters in a House primary in Miami-Dade County, where Rep. Juan-Carlos Zapata, R-Miami, is fighting to win a second term against challenger Frank Artiles in District 119.

The party supports Zapata in the Aug. 31 primary.

The full-color mailer says, "Support our Republican Party" and "every vote counts" and shows a smiling President Bush giving a thumbs-up. A tear-off absentee ballot request form, to be mailed to the Republican Party of Florida's Miami office, shows the president and Zapata side by side.

Republican Party spokesman Joseph Agostini initially denied that the brochure was the work of the GOP. But after he was shown the flier, he backtracked. He confirmed it was a GOP flier mailed in response to an Artiles flier that used the president's face without permission.

Zapata did not return a call seeking comment.

"It's an astonishing level of hypocrisy," said Sharon Lettman-Pacheco of the liberal People for the American Way Foundation, which sued the state seeking to force manual recounts for touch screen machines. "Which one is it: Do the machines work, or do they know something that we don't?"

But even as Democrats criticized the message, they realized that Republicans were making the point they have been making for months.

While not an official party position, some Democrats are urging voters to use absentee ballots instead of the touch screen machines.

Steve Henley, a Democratic candidate for Hillsborough County supervisor of elections, makes the point on the campaign trail. "By voting absentee, you make sure your vote gets counted," Henley said. "And in the event there is a close election, they have a physical copy of your vote."

- Times staff writers Alisa Ulferts and Tamara Lush and researchers Kitty Bennett and Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report.