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Problems are both political, practical


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 18, 2000

All of a sudden, everyone seems surprised that the Republicans and Democrats we've elected to office are political.


Did anyone expect an attorney general who is the state's most visible Democrat, the manager of Vice President Al Gore's campaign in Florida, to suddenly forget his roots? Did anyone expect a secretary of state who co-chaired the state campaign for Texas Gov. George W. Bush to suddenly abandon her Republican shoes?

Somehow, the nation and the world watching this Florida voting soap opera seem to suddenly expect a non-political political system.

If it weren't so serious, it would be funny. It's like Capt. Renault in Casablanca saying he was "shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here" when faced with Nazi officers at Rick's Cafe Americain.

We elect Democrats and Republicans and somehow manage to run the state -- in spite of them. Anyone who expects a government without politics as a result has obviously been living on another planet.

Katherine Harris, facing her first election as secretary of state, looks like a deer caught in the headlights -- a very tired deer. Some suggest she is in water way over her head. That may be true, but that would be true of anyone caught in this mess.

The national spotlight on her is very nasty. Alan Dershowitz of all people -- that champion of liberal causes -- called her a crook on CNN.

Many of her critics allege that she is close to Gov. Jeb Bush. They forget that Bush actually supported her opponent, former Secretary of State Sandra Mortham, when Harris won the race in 1998.

It's true that J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, former chief of staff to Gov. Bob Martinez, has been advising Harris during this uproar. But she would have been a total fool to go through this without anyone around. Stipanovich abandoned the party regulars two years ago and supported Harris, so he was a likely choice.

More alarming than the partisan politics in Tallahassee are the reports of mishandled ballots in many places.

We've all been told every vote counts, but only this year have we learned that thousands of ballots are routinely tossed out because voters didn't comply with instructions.

The same people who can play 15 simultaneous bingo cards can't figure out the ballot?

Most alarming are reports like one from Collier County. A post-election audit of the envelopes that contained absentee ballots determined that 24 ballots had not been removed from their original envelopes.

Collier County had fewer than 12,000 absentees. If they can't even get them out of the envelopes, how much confidence can we have that our votes are really going to be counted?

Then we have the situation over in Palm Beach County where the votes are being counted and recounted. All the debate is over flying chads versus pregnant and dimpled chads -- a whole new language we are learning this year.

In some states the chad -- a tiny piece of paper punched out of a ballot when a voter punches a choice -- is counted only when two of its four corners are detached and light is visible through the hole. In Palm Beach County they are counting the "pregnant chads," the ballots where it appears someone tried to punch a hole.

This all means your vote gets counted in some places, but not in others.

Clearly, we need new ways to vote if American voters are to regain any confidence in the elections process.

It is highly likely that many Florida counties also will need financial help if we are to replace outdated election equipment. There already is talk of a uniform ballot and other measures that would take some of the decisionmaking out of the hands of local elections supervisors.

If that comes out of all this uproar, it will not have been in vain.

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