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Panel urges statewide vote standard

The commission also warns that alternatives to punch card systems may not solve voting problems.

By Times staff and wire reports

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2001

The commission also warns that alternatives to punch card systems may not solve voting problems.

WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan commission led by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford makes sweeping recommendations for election reform, including the creation of uniform statewide standards for registering voters and counting ballots.

It also raises concerns about doing away with punch card systems, which sparked much of the controversy in last fall's Florida election recount.

The report by the National Commission on Federal Election Reform will be presented today at the White House. Officials said Monday that President Bush may endorse many of its recommendations, if not the entire 100-page report. Congress may take up the issue this fall. The commission's 19 members included a wide spectrum of political views and most of the recommendations were unanimous.

Some key recommendations:

VOTER REGISTRATION: In Florida last November, many voters who thought they were registered were denied ballots. This problem could be solved if each state set up a statewide registration system, where a citizen could get on the list anywhere and have the information relayed to his or her precinct.

PROVISIONAL BALLOT: If a dispute arises about a prospective voter's eligibility, a provisional ballot should be allowed -- with a decision later about whether it will count.

COUNTING BALLOTS: Each state should set uniform standards for what constitutes a valid vote and spell out its recount and certification procedures. Such standards and procedures varied from county to county in Florida -- confusing the 36-day recount of its crucial presidential vote.

PUNCH CARDS: Congress should not attempt to solve voting problems simply by paying states to discard the punch card voting machines. Replacing them with modern optical-scan equipment might create problems of its own, especially for visually handicapped people, the commission said.

Florida already is moving away from punch card ballots, however, and the change will be expensive.

In a sweeping revision of the state's elections laws in May, the Legislature ordered 41 counties to upgrade their voting systems by the September 2002 primary. Twenty-four of those counties, including Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough, have been using punch cards.

Most of the 41 counties are considering optical scan systems that require voters to fill out a paper ballot. But 11 mostly larger counties are considering the more expensive computerized touch screen systems that operate much like ATMs, and they contain more than half the state's registered voters.

In Hillsborough County, Supervisor of Elections Pam Iorio has recommended county commissioners spend $12-million to buy a touch-screen system. Her recommendation will be discussed today.

In Pinellas, the county's proposed budget sets aside $15-million -- and a tentative property tax increase of 4.8 percent -- to pay for new machines.

In Pasco, county officials are considering spending $4-million to $5-million over the next two years to finance a new system. Hernando and Citrus counties already have optical scan systems.

VOTING EQUIPMENT: Instead of mandating specific kinds of equipment, each state should set performance standards and measure how well each jurisdiction meets those standards. The federal government could usefully test and certify high-quality voting equipment, which allows voters to correct any errors before they leave the polling place.

STATE VS. FEDERAL: Most decisions should be made by the states, which traditionally have had the responsibility for running elections, while the federal government should have a supportive role.

THE MEDIA: The media should follow a voluntary embargo on airing vote and exit poll results until the West Coast has completed its balloting. If necessary, Congress might legislate a ban on disclosure of official results until 11 p.m. Eastern time.

A HOLIDAY: Make Election Day a national holiday. This recommendation has come from a variety of congressional and private sources. But some state election officials have cautioned that it might make it even harder to recruit volunteers to work at the polls if people were on vacation that day.

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