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    Voting changes a 'priority'

    The governor says he will support spending on new technology and other changes his task force recommends.

    By LUCY MORGAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush on Monday pledged to push for money and legal changes to fix Florida's badly broken elections system.

    "We'll make this a high priority," Bush promised after receiving a 78-page report filled with recommendations for buying new equipment in counties that need it and changing laws to establish a uniform system.

    Bush's bipartisan task force has recommended spending $20-million to lease equipment in time for the 2002 election and exploring other technology that could be purchased by the next presidential election in 2004.

    Bush appointed the 21-member task force -- with 10 Republicans, 10 Democrats and one with no party affiliation -- after the November presidential election dragged out five weeks while Al Gore challenged George W. Bush's 537-vote victory.

    The task force also recommended getting rid of punch card ballots, improving voter education and creating uniform standards for recounts.

    "Whether we like it or not, this is an issue people want us to contend with," Bush said. "People want clarity. It's clear we need to upgrade our technology."

    Bush said he supports a recommendation from his task force to use optical-scan technology that would allow voters to correct mistakes before they leave the polls.

    Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan promptly demonstrated the technology with a ballot marked for both Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. The machine rejected the ballot, allowing Brogan to feed a second ballot marked for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

    Former Secretary of State Jim Smith and Dr. Tad Foote, president of the University of Miami, were co-chairmen of the governor's task force.

    Smith, appearing later in the day at a Florida State University symposium on the election, said he doesn't believe it will be easy to get legislators to approve the money or make changes in the law.

    "I think Gov. Bush understands his reputation rides to a great extent on improving the election system in Florida," Smith said.

    Bush described his negotiations with legislators as "a work in progress" that will end with approval for spending money and changing the laws to fix the problem.

    "I've learned not to draw lines in the sand and show my hand," Bush said when asked about his conversations with legislators who convene today for their annual 60-day session. "We'll make this a high priority for this session. This is a time when hope springs eternal."

    Bush said he believes the state must come up with a standard for recounts and vote certifications that are identical in all 67 counties.

    The state also needs to clarify the grounds for contesting elections, create a statewide voter registration list, make it easier to cast an absentee ballot and come up with common-sense rules for handling overseas ballots.

    All of those issues arose in November and December as officials tried to determine the votes in the presidential race.

    "We'll still have a decentralized, 67-county approach, but we need to have the best practices available," Bush said.

    Attorney General Bob Butterworth stood beside Bush and task force members who made the recommendations and said he believes legislators must resolve the problems.

    "This resulted in great embarrassment for our state," Butterworth said.

    Senate President John McKay and House Speaker Tom Feeney did not attend. McKay got a copy of the report when he arrived at the Capitol late Monday afternoon.

    Although he had yet to read it, McKay said he supports uniform election standards, more voter education, getting rid of punch cards and upgrading elections equipment, but doesn't think the state should spend $20-million to lease equipment that could be purchased for $40-million.

    House Speaker Feeney said Monday he supports the optical-scan system, but he would prefer to lend the money to the 41 counties that need the new technology. He said it's not fair to have the state pay for the systems when other counties have already upgraded on their own.

    "Are we prepared to spend $20-million if we are fixing a real problem with a real solution? Absolutely yes," Feeney, R-Oviedo, said. "Are we going to spend $20-million so that we could feel good and go home and say, 'Don't worry, we took care of the problem?' Everything's still on the table."

    - The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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    From the Times state desk