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Florida comedy of errors offers some lessons

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 11, 2000


What a great civics lesson.

Unfortunately some of it comes at Florida's expense as red-faced elections supervisors count and recount the ballots.

"What a Mickey Mouse way to run a country," trumpeted one of London's more irreverent newspapers, dragging the Florida mouse into the uproar.

Across the nation, indeed the world, people are suddenly learning about the Electoral College as well as the importance of a single vote.

And more than a few confused voters in Palm Beach County should be learning how to look at a ballot. Perhaps they'll pay more attention next time.

And perhaps election officials in every county will do a better job of putting the ballots together. And it's a sure bet the Democrats will take a harder look at the next ballot before approving it.

It is clear that many of the state's election supervisors -- people who are independently elected -- need to update their equipment. Machines with broken handles and punch cards that are hard to use should be replaced with simpler ballots.

Ballots like the "butterfly" version that is causing such an uproar in Palm Beach are used all over the country, including Chicago, where the famous father of Al Gore's campaign manager, William Daley, spent a lifetime manipulating elections.

Much of the fuss is over a decision to toss out 19,000 ballots that were not properly punched. This is not a new problem. More than 15,000 of the county's ballots were tossed out in 1996 because they weren't properly punched. That should have been enough of a warning to fix the problem.

The elections supervisor in Palm Beach is a Democrat, and the Democratic Party approved the ballot in advance. Bet they'll pay more attention next time. And perhaps county officials across the state will take it seriously when elections officials come in asking for more money to buy better equipment.

It's almost comical to hear voters complain that they mistakenly voted for Pat Buchanan when they meant to vote for Al Gore. Should we now toss out elections because voters later say they were confused?

If that becomes the standard, we may never get through an election again.

Whatever happens to this election, the uproar does have some good points: Everyone is now paying attention to an election few cared about a few weeks ago.

It's THE topic of conversation everywhere.

In airport lounges across the nation, travelers are stopping before television sets, checking the latest vote total in much the same way they stop to watch the ups and downs of the stock market in other times.

From a distance Florida looks backward and stupid, but in smaller print on inside pages, similar foul-ups were noted in other states. One of the more common complaints comes from people who registered to vote under the new "motor voter" laws but had trouble voting because the registration records never got transferred to the courthouse voting rolls.

Recounts are under way in several other states where the race was close, and ballot irregularities are surfacing, too, including a situation in New Mexico where some ballots disappeared. It should be clear to everyone that this is not a perfect system, but then it never has been.

All this uproar has almost overshadowed the fact that Gore seems to have won the popular vote and George W. Bush may win the most electoral votes. This is certain to spark renewed debate over whether we should dump the system created by our founding fathers.

Once again, Florida is in the spotlight in a year when 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez dominated the news. It is somehow fitting that O.J. Simpson has moved here to join us.

Maybe he'll register to vote.

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