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A Times Editorial

A contaminated process

By endorsing a voting equipment company in exchange for financial considerations, the Florida Association of Counties took what amounts to a bribe.

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2001

By endorsing a voting equipment company in exchange for financial considerations, the Florida Association of Counties took what amounts to a bribe.

Give Election Systems and Software, an Omaha-based voter technology firm, some credit. With Florida frantically waving tens of millions of tax dollars for a fix to its elections equipment woes, ES&S did what most savvy government contractors would do. The company hired a lobbyist with connections (former Secretary of State Sandra Mortham), went to the top dog (the Florida Association of Counties, which represents all county governments), and offered to generously grease some palms (give FAC a cut of the profits).

So it's hard to be too offended by the corporate guile of ES&S. We'll save the disgust instead for FAC, the county government collective that is unapologetically taking what amounts to a bribe.

While county elections supervisors throughout the state carefully examine the available voting technology and what the various companies have to offer, the Florida Association of Counties decided to bypass the people with the expertise. Instead, FAC sent a memorandum to all county commissions last week, endorsing ES&S. For its supportive role, the association will get a percentage from the company's contracts. By way of explanation, FAC executive director Mary Kay Cariseo says: "We have to pay the bills."

So do the taxpayers. And they deserve better.

The endorsement deal with ES&S is presumptuous at best. Yes, the association may have been able to win some concessions from the company and some pledges to provide full services for its county clients, but Cariseo should careful in faulting other companies for not being "willing to step up to the plate." The fact is, FAC is the wrong plate. The companies need to be making their pitches to the elections supervisors who are constitutionally charged with the responsibility to conduct elections in Florida counties. Those elections supervisors are better equipped to understand which company is offering the best product.

Just ask Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Pam Iorio, who has testified before the state Legislature about voting equipment. Her diplomatic reaction to the endorsement: "For the Florida Association of Counties to conclude that one vendor is better than the others without the input of the supervisors is not a wise move."

Under Florida's system of county governance, county commissions will indeed be asked ultimately to pay for the voting equipment. But the organization that represents them is contaminating the process, and elected commissioners themselves should hold FAC to account for its actions. How much money is the association supposed to get? What role did Mortham, who lobbies both for FAC and ES&S, play? Why were elections supervisors excluded?

The mission statement for the Florida Association of Counties calls for it to "preserve democratic principles by working to keep appropriate authority at the level of government closest to the people." Maybe that was written before Cariseo decided she had to pay the bills.

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