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Counties may help pay for vote reforms

Key lawmakers agree that the state's biggest counties should pay half the cost of new machines.

By BILL VARIAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 2, 2001


Key lawmakers agree that the state's biggest counties should pay half the cost of new machines.

A Senate proposal to fix Florida's voting system would cost the state's largest counties millions of dollars to pay their share of the tab.

But Tampa Bay's elections supervisors weren't complaining much Tuesday.

"It's an excellent proposal," said Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Pam Iorio, president of the state association of elections officials. "The state, for the first time in our history, has agreed that funding new election equipment is a partnership between the state and the counties.

Negotiators for the House and Senate have agreed on the proposal. It still must be approved by the Legislature before the session ends this week.

The Senate is proposing to spend $24.1-million over two years to pay much of the cost for counties to update voting machines. Under the plan, the state would pay the entire cost for small counties, and half for larger counties -- including Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus.

State representatives had pitched an interest-free loan program to help counties pay for new voting machines, but the House leadership this week has signaled its support for grants instead.

In Hernando and Citrus counties in particular, elections supervisors were pleased with the direction of the debate. Both counties had already dumped punch-card ballots in favor of optical scanners, spending roughly $410,000 and $280,000, respectively.

Hernando would collect $191,250 and Citrus $131,250 under the Senate bill. Hernando Elections Supervisor Annie Williams said the money would come in handy with reapportionment looming and the likelihood that new voting precincts will be created.

"We'll use it for additional voting machines and for voter education," Williams said. "I think that's very important."

No-interest loans, as contemplated by the House, would do little good for the 16 counties that have moved to optical scanning systems, said Citrus County Supervisor of Elections Susan Gill.

"If our counties sacrificed other things to purchase new voting machines, we shouldn't be penalized for that," Gill said. "I think the legislators are realizing that."

Lawmakers had agreed to do away with punch-card voting after repeated recounts in November's presidential election shamed Florida.

The Senate's proposal to remedy the system is based on what it would take to put optical scanners in every voting precinct. Calculations use figures from counties that have already purchased the system -- providing $7,500 for every precinct in counties smaller than 75,000 people, and half that in larger counties.

Help for small counties is particularly critical, said Pinellas Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark.

"I don't think we ever expected full funding," Clark said of Pinellas. "Some of the counties don't have the tax base we have. Even if the state provided no-interest loans, it would still be a hardship."

In Hillsborough, County Administrator Dan Kleman said he has worked with Iorio to craft a $3-million county budget request for new voting machines. But it's a tough budget year all around.

"Clearly, a grant program would be extremely helpful," he said.

Kurt Browning, the Pasco County supervisor of elections, whose office stands to gain $495,000, was less pleased. He said that with estimates based on optical scanning systems, the state's allocation, if passed, will make a small dent in purchasing the touch-screen computer voting system he favors -- though that technology is not certified yet in Florida.

He said he also fears the proposal will create a uniform voting system.

"Having the same box in every precinct in the state is a bad deal because it totally neuters competition" among ballot box vendors, Browning said. "But having half-a-million dollars is better than not having half-a-million dollars."

He was joined by Florida Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe, who said the state should pay the entire cost of replacing the machines.

"This is not about gadgets and gizmos. This is about the people of Florida and their right to have access," he said.

"If you were to ask voters if they would favor spending money to have election reform or to have tax breaks," Poe said, "they would say overwhelmingly the priority is to fix voting machines."

Gov. Jeb Bush, who supports giving counties grants rather than loans to replace the punch-card machines, said Tuesday that the state has no obligation to pay the entire cost of new machines for every county.

"It's been a 100 percent obligation of local government to run elections," he said. "It's been that way since the beginning of time."

"It's a statewide issue," Bush said of the need to replace the punch-card machines, "but it's a county obligation."

- Times staff writer Tim Nickens contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 234-0713.

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