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House okays demise of chad

The bills would end punch card voting, require uniform ballots and help counties buy voting machines.

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 2001


The bills would end punch card voting, require uniform ballots and help counties buy voting machines.

TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida House on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a series of bills designed to get rid of hanging chad and recount difficulties that made the state an international laughingstock last year.

The House bills dump punch card voting systems, require statewide uniform ballots and establish a $29-million loan program for counties that need to buy new voting machines.

Democrats tried in vain to gain approval of additional measures that would have extended voting rights to felons who have served their prison sentences, imposed limits on soft money contributions and provided outright grants to poor counties that cannot afford to pay for new equipment.

The Senate has yet to consider its own version of the bills, which are expected to be on the floor later this week. Legislators have one more week to reach agreement on the issue before their annual session ends May 4.

In addition to trying to fix the state's most highly publicized problems, the House bills would eliminate costly runoff primaries and double the maximum contribution candidates can accept from individual donors from $500 to $1,000.

The increase in contributions and another measure that prevents candidates from using out-of-state campaign contributions to obtain matching public finance money drew criticism from Common Cause, the watchdog group. Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause, said the change will make it more difficult for candidates to raise enough money to obtain public financing.

Although legislators envision a 2002 voting system that would use optical scan ballots counted at each precinct, the bills leave the door open for updated touch-screen technology if it gains state approval.

The 41 counties that need to buy new equipment would be eligible for no-interest loans from the state, but some legislators wanted to provide grants to poor counties that are already taxing at the maximum rate and cannot afford the equipment.

Rep. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, urged the House to support grants, saying some counties can barely meet expenses and do not have the money to pay for voting equipment.

Republicans opposed grants, saying they were merely a ploy to bail out counties like Broward, which has consistently refused to spend money to upgrade its equipment.

Republicans stripped some language out of the bill that had drawn complaints from citizens groups and Democrats who accused them of trying to stack the deck for a Republican governor.

Rep. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, had offered an amendment at the bill's last committee stop that would have removed a $6-million spending cap on statewide candidates and a ban on the use of political action committee money. Those measures were added to the bill late last week over the objections of Democrats who accused Republicans of trying to help Gov. Jeb Bush win re-election.

Democrats still found a lot to criticize about the bill, which is the product of a house dominated by Republicans, 77-43.

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Dania Beach, said the Republican refusal to limit soft money contributions to political parties and the amount parties can spend on individual candidates is a "blatant attempt to help the re-election of well-financed incumbents."

"The battle is not over," promised Rep. Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine.

He sponsored an amendment to limit party contributions to $5,000, eliminate the "three pack" ads, which allow the party to spend unlimited amounts of money on advertising that names three or more candidates, and put a $50,000 cap on party expenditures for individual candidates.

Current law allows unlimited contributions to political parties and allows parties to take advantage of loopholes and spend unlimited amounts of money on polling, staff and other services for individual candidates.

"The time is long past for soft money and campaign finance reform," Wiles said. "Only after reform can we then begin rebuilding voter confidence, one voter at a time."

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