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For a better Florida

A vote of confidence

Officials say Florida's election reforms need only fine-tuning this year

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published February 27, 2005


Previous coverage:
Board exams
Seven-year itch
Those pesky amendments

JACKSONVILLE - It was the middle of Super Bowl week, but some people in this riverfront city had no interest in football.

They wanted to talk about how the 2004 elections in Florida were run.

Among their complaints: absentee ballots lost in the mail, uncounted provisional ballots, long lines at polling places, voting machine breakdowns, dirty tricks discouraging people from voting and felons who completed their prison terms but can't vote.

Testifying under oath at an elections forum held by groups including the NAACP and People for the American Way, witnesses offered a bleak picture of the system. The forum was part of a campaign to show it's a myth that Florida ran a smooth election, and some witnesses were members of the groups taking testimony.

"While we didn't have the meltdown we had in 2000, we have a lot of problems that need serious reform," said Elliot Mincberg of People for the American Way Foundation.

Mincberg promised to carry the complaints to the Legislature in hopes of getting action. But most legislators believe that while improvements are needed, the system doesn't need an overhaul. The people who run Florida's elections agree.

"It was a well-run election," said Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning. He said critics are mostly Democrats who are angry because their presidential candidate lost. "I don't know what planet they're from," Browning said.

Legislators will debate myriad election proposals this spring. But they are already upset with the state's top elections official, Secretary of State Glenda Hood, who surprised them with a far-reaching proposal to expand her power over voter rolls.

Hood's aides said the proposal responds to a federal law requiring statewide uniformity in voting. But critics said Hood went overboard, and they fault her for springing the idea on them.

Ignoring legislators and elections supervisors could doom Hood's proposal, Senate President Tom Lee suggested.

The proposal would allow Hood to fine elections supervisors who fail to obey her interpretations of election law. After a quick outcry from lawmakers and elections supervisors, Gov. Jeb Bush signaled a willingness to compromise.

Despite her call for change, Hood says Florida ran a smooth election in the face of four hurricanes and "extraordinary media scrutiny." Much of that scrutiny was related to a secret list of voters thought to be felons that turned out to be riddled with inaccuracies. Hood junked the list after intense criticism.

Some areas need to be improved, Hood said, including timely and accurate mailings of absentee ballots and more flexibility in early voting sites.

"Our goal is to make sure that we fine-tune our very successful election reforms," Hood told legislators in January.

To bolster her case, Hood cited a poll by the nonpartisan Collins Center for Public Policy that found 85 percent of voters thought the elections were excellent or good.

The survey also showed that voters have more faith in optical scan equipment than touch screen machines, and that black voters are more worried about fraud than whites or Hispanics. The full survey can be found at www.collinscenter.org.)

A report by the California Institute of Technology and MIT concludes that the percentage of spoiled or unmarked ballots in Florida dropped from 2.9 percent in 2000 to 0.4 percent in 2004.

This session, legislators will consider expanding the locations for early voting, which proved very popular. But it is unclear how they will resolve the problem of long lines. Legislators and elections supervisors blame each other for lengthy waits at early voting sites.

"There's no need for a six-hour wait," said state Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton. "We gave them flexibility on early voting, and they blew it in most places around the state."

Elections supervisors blame lawmakers for restricting early voting to main election offices, branch offices, city halls and libraries.

The result in some places was gridlock. Voters stood in the heat for hours, for what had been promoted as a convenience. Lawmakers also did not limit solicitation of voters at early voting sites. Some voters felt harassed by activists.

Browning called long lines an anomaly of the intense 2004 election. The answer, he said, is opening more early voting sites, not buying more equipment that would lie unused most of the time.

"I don't want to be required to go out and buy machines, based on some formula the Legislature comes up with," Browning said.

But long lines occurred even on Election Day.

Pinellas County plans to solve the problem by being more flexible about the number of machines at each polling place. Under the new system, the county will have more flexibility to move machines between precincts, said deputy elections administrator Lori Hudson.

"That was the No. 1 complaint that we faced from people on Election Day, and it was in selected precincts," Hudson said of the long lines.

Lawmakers also may restrict politicking at early voting sites. Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, who heads the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, wants a 100-foot zone of privacy outside early voting centers, double the size of the existing 50-foot zone outside polling places on Election Day.

"That's badly needed," Posey said. "Don't harass people in line. They don't appreciate it."

Some legislators still want a paper trail to verify votes in the 15 urban counties that now use touch screens. But the state would have to certify any such system, and that hasn't happened. The cost of retrofitting machines also makes it unlikely.

Also going nowhere is a proposal by elections supervisors to concentrate voting in regional supercenters. Lawmakers in both parties oppose the idea, fearing it would inconvenience older voters by making them travel longer distances to vote.

Three other proposals are up for debate: setting pre-election deadlines for absentee ballot requests, banning third-party groups from handling absentee requests and making it a state crime to intimidate voters.

Legislators also must resolve a sensitive political issue: whether to revive the runoff that was replaced in 2002 with a winner-take-all primary.

If legislators take no action, the runoff automatically returns next year.

Steve Bousquet is the Times' deputy capital bureau chief.

On the agenda

A snapshot of major election-related issues facing the 2005 Legislature:

ABSENTEE BALLOTS: Election supervisors want to prohibit absentee ballot requests from being mailed to political groups, and they want the state to impose a deadline for requests, such as the Friday before Election Day.

FELONS: Even though Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet have made it easier for felons to regain the vote, some voting rights groups are not satisfied. With legislators' support, they will seek additional changes.

EARLY VOTING: The popularity of early voting in 2004 has caused lawmakers and election experts to consider expanding it, but the kinds of polling sites may change. According to a state survey of voters, libraries and churches are the least popular early voting sites.

SECOND PRIMARY: Lawmakers abolished the second primary, or runoff, in 2002 and 2004. The ban expires in 2006 unless a new law is passed extending the ban. Election supervisors say if the runoff is revived, there should be at least eight weeks between election dates so they can make preparations. That would move the first primary back to July or sooner.

SOLICITATION AT POLLS: Amid mounting complaints from voters who had to run a gantlet of activists, signature-gatherers and others at the polls, election supervisors want to extend the cone of privacy from 50 feet to 100 feet. Lawmakers also will consider restrictions on solicitation at early voting sites, which they overlooked last year.

SUPERPRECINCTS: To capitalize on the popularity of early voting, supervisors are pitching the idea of regional superprecincts or voting centers. But the idea is not catching on among legislators, and is especially unpopular in areas with high concentrations of elderly voters.

VOTER INTIMIDATION: Reports of intimidation and dirty tricks have prompted some legislators and voting rights groups to seek criminal penalties against people caught trying to confuse voters or discourage people from voting.

WRITE-IN CANDIDATES: Florida voters approved a universal primary in 1998, meaning that all voters, regardless of party, can cast ballots in a primary if all the candidates are from the same party. But a frequently occurring loophole allows the primary to be closed if a write-in candidate runs, and election supervisors want the loophole eliminated.

[Last modified February 27, 2005, 00:13:19]


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