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Activist inside and atop the elections machine

Despite the state's threats, Leon County's elections chief champions the rights of voters .

By Alisa Ulferts
Published October 31, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - In science, a radical ion is a charged compound that has an unpaired electron.

In Florida, it's the Leon County supervisor of elections.

Meet Ion Voltaire Sancho, county elections chief and all-around thorn in the side of any man or machine that casts a shadow on the rights of voters.

His father named him after an ion because on Dec. 6, 1950, it was the one of the smallest objects known to man; the name was supposed to give young Ion perspective on his place in the world.

Sancho admits he may not have gotten the message.

He might be the most oft-quoted county elections supervisor in state history; he's logged time on the major television networks and on National Public Radio. His name is familiar to readers of the New York Times, the Washington Post and, of course, the St. Petersburg Times.

He's quoted because he hacked into his own voting equipment to prove it could be done, and because state officials threatened to sue him and remove him from office.

Many people assume his agitation began with the 2000 presidential election debacle, when irregularities cost untold numbers of Floridians their votes. Or maybe it began in 2004, when problems that should have been fixed weren't.

But to find the source of his kinetics - for Sancho is twitchy, the way the truly obsessed often are - you must go back 20 years to a Leon County election. It's the one Sancho lost.

Sancho's inspiration

Sancho didn't want to be a supervisor of elections. He wanted to be a county commissioner. He campaigned for Leon County Commission District 5, and on Sept. 2, 1986, he traveled from polling place to polling place as candidates often do. What he saw chilled him: People who thought they were voting for one candidate actually voted for another because the machine levers had been misaligned. When voters tried to force the machines to register the candidate they wanted, the levers broke off.

"I watched in horror as a process I took for granted completely unraveled," Sancho said.

By early afternoon, Sancho and then-Secretary of State George Firestone were in court, arguing that the election should be suspended because the results were invalid. But the judge said there was no precedent for stopping and restarting an election.

"He told me there was no judicial remedy, only a political one," Sancho recalled.

In the weeks that followed, an explanation for the faulty machines emerged: the only elections employee who had known how to program the machines had left the county. The person who took his place didn't know his predecessor had altered the programming on some of the machines. When the new employee set up the machines according to the user manual, he made them incompatible with the ballots.

By one account, as many as 5,000 people lost their votes.

But Sancho found his cause.

"I made up my mind then and there that I would run for office. And I made a vow that would never happen on my watch," Sancho said.

He took courses in election machine management and even became certified in their use. Two years later, he ran for supervisor of elections. He's run the office - unopposed - ever since.

And when the 2000 election came and went, Leon County had the lowest error rate of any county in the state.

Revered and despised

Sancho was born in New York City to Puerto Rican parents. As the family moved around, first to the South and later to the Midwest, Sancho as eldest cared for his younger siblings. He moved to Florida after high school and ultimately graduated from Stetson University and then went on to law school at Florida State University.

Few people are ambivalent about Sancho. Some supporters have suggested he deserves a statue alongside Paul Revere. He is the hero of a growing number of electronic voting machine antagonists whose attempts to expose security flaws are beginning to gain attention in Washington; days before Congress recessed last month the Committee on House Administration held a hearing on a bill that would require a voter verified paper trail on electronic voting equipment.

But he's not as popular among his peers, who tolerate his outspokenness in varying degrees. Secretary of State Sue Cobb accused him of "undermining voter confidence" when he gave an anti-electronic voting machine group access to one of his machines earlier this year to see whether they could hack into it and alter its vote count.

The group was successful. The fallout: None of the three voting equipment companies certified to do business in Florida would sell Sancho their machines. Most voters in Leon County use the opti-scan equipment, but federal law requires one electronic machine per precinct for visually impaired voters. Cobb demanded the return of a half-million dollar grant Sancho had received to pay for the machines.

Cobb's office said they were trying to ensure the rights of Leon County voters. But some think the state went too far.

"He's been a great help," said Ben Wilcox, director of government watchdog Common Cause Florida. "I don't understand why they feel so threatened by him."

Ultimately, one of the companies relented and sold Sancho the required machines - after a test conducted by the state of California backed him up.

Sancho, who is married and has a son, 8-year-old Ion Voltaire Sancho II, says he'll keep fighting for voters for one simple reason: Elections officials, himself included, "are the gatekeepers of democracy."

[Last modified October 31, 2006, 00:56:31]

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