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Absence says a lot about election overhaul

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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- Others may doubt the need for an election overhaul, but not Gov. Jeb Bush. He was emphatic on all the key points Monday at a press conference where he received the report and recommendations of his task force. Yes, he said, every county should have optical-scanning machines that read ballots at the precincts. Yes, the state should help finance them.

"We're a big, prosperous state," he emphasized. "We can make this happen."

But if silence speaks volumes, so does absence. The governor had to make himself heard over at least one rather noisy absence -- House Speaker Tom Feeney's.

Secretary of State Katherine Harris, the chief elections officer, and Senate President John McKay weren't there, either. Harris, however, had already endorsed the panel's principal findings so her absence, attributed to a schedule conflict, was conspicuous only as another missed opportunity with the turbulent press. McKay's office reported a previously scheduled conflict out of town, and in any case one of his Republican senators, Jim Sebesta of Tampa -- a member of the task force -- was on hand to show support.

That left Feeney to explain why he sat out the event in his Capitol office just three floors away. His spokesperson, Kim Stone, said Feeney had "every intention" to be there until the time was changed "and the governor's office staff let me know it was just a review of the task force recommendations and our presence was not essential."

The time change was 15 minutes. The governor's people had a better reason for not insisting that Feeney come: The speaker wasn't on board.

Rep. Lois Frankel, who leads the heavily outnumbered House Democrats, said the Republican leadership had apparently balked at several points sought by the Democrats as Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan was trying to arrange a consensus. One of them was the precinct-based tabulation, which makes it possible for voters to correct spoiled ballots. Frankel said the last she had heard from Brogan, on Friday, was that he couldn't get agreement.

On Monday, Frankel was almost conspicuously absent, too. She was watching on television and hurried downstairs on hearing Bush embrace the most important points.

The governor was diplomatically noncommittal about the missing Republicans, referring to the election overhaul as "work in progress." He wouldn't make threats. Neither would Attorney General Bob Butterworth, another player at the press conference.

Aside, however, Butterworth, a Democrat, told several journalists that it would be "malfeasance" if the Legislature didn't address the problems.

"As long as the state is moving forward," he said, "the (Supreme) court may be willing to give us a lot of rope, but if we don't move forward, the court may hang us with that rope."

Bush hasn't had such a problem with Republicans before. School vouchers weren't really in doubt when he twisted arms two years ago. The goal then was to get off on the right foot with a show of force, and the leadership was always in line. But this time, they are potentially a serious embarrassment. He wasn't responsible for the voting problems that contributed to his brother's disputed presidential victory. He would be responsible for failing to fix them.

The Republican line in the House is to attack the Democrats for demanding money for the new voting machines that some counties had already bought on their own.

"I'm sure most of them are making political points back home, since Palm Beach and Broward counties would likely get most of the money under their proposal," Majority Leader Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said on Feb. 22. Before the Legislature "over-reacts," he said, it needed to hear from the task force and the supervisors. While the state should play a role, he said, "the entire state should not be penalized because some counties have not adequately invested in their voting systems."

Those "some counties," he might have added, include his own. Does he have misgivings about helping Pasco? (Supervisor of Elections Kurt S. Browning struck out when he tried to persuade the County Commission to replace punch cards with optical scanners.)

Democrats suspect that the real objection is not about money but about making it too easy for Democrats to vote like Democrats. Everyone will be attentive to today's opening session to see what, if anything, Feeney has to say on the subject. His silence today, like his absence Monday, would be eloquent.

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