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Change: $200 million

Addressing voting problems and changing methods will be costly, an election official says. And not everyone considers it a top priority.

By DIANE RADO

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 14, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Butterfly ballots, chads and undervotes held Florida's voting system up to national ridicule. In all likelihood, the problems won't be fixed any time soon.

The state's director of elections says a solution could cost at least $200-million.

Not everyone is willing to ante up.

While most officials agree something should be done, just what needs repair, how much the Legislature should spend, and how swiftly the state should act is a matter of debate.

The Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, made up of the elected officials on the front lines in voter offices around Florida, is already talking about a laundry list of ideas to improve the state's voting system.

It plans to survey supervisors about which voting systems are best, whether punch card ballots should be outlawed and whether the association should recommend a statewide voting system that would ensure a citizen in the Panhandle votes the same way as a citizen in Key West.

Clay Roberts, the director of Florida's Division of Elections, said Wednesday that major reforms likely to be considered by the Legislature, such as the statewide voting system, could probably not be in place until the next presidential election in 2004.

He favors legislation, already filed, that would set up a task force to examine the newest technologies and voting methods, as well as the costs of those systems statewide.

Roberts' estimate: At least $200-million.

"That may be cost-prohibitive," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, the Senate's Rules chairman. Other lawmakers are likely to feel the same way, particularly in a budget year when money is expected to be tighter because of rising Medicaid costs and other issues.

"I think they're going to back away . . . when they see the price," said Kurt Browning, Pasco supervisor of elections and legislative chair for the state supervisors' organization. Counties are responsible for financing their own voting systems. But Browning is hopeful that the state could at least share the cost of installing a statewide voting system over a period of several years.

What is clear is that reforming Florida's voting system will be a politically dicey proposition.

In the past, reforms have been bogged down by lawmakers worried about how changes could affect their political parties.

After the turmoil over the close presidential election, pressure is already building to fix problems. But Republican lawmakers, who control both the House and Senate and are happy about a victory for Texas Gov. George Bush, seem less willing than Democrats to push quickly for major changes.

Rep. Sandra Murman, R-Tampa, a Republican leader in the state House, said election reform will not top lawmakers' agenda this year. It will be behind education and health care.

The Legislature may play a role in setting up a uniform voting system statewide, which could include providing money to counties who need help buying new voting systems, Murman said. But she shied away from advocating major changes.

"What needs to happen is you've got to take a step back and take a deep breath and look at what's really needed," she said.

"I think we kind of got a binocular viewpoint because we had certain areas of the state that were targeted. Is it really a statewide problem?"

House Majority Leader Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, also said lawmakers are likely to look at establishing statewide voting systems and standards for counting votes manually. "But we don't want to micromanage" elections supervisors, who are elected constitutional officers, Fasano said.

In the state Senate, President John McKay, R-Bradenton, has made it a priority to review the state's election procedures, standards and technology. "That review must begin soon and must be conducted in a non-partisan manner to ensure the highest level of public confidence," he said in his first address as Senate president in November.

On Wednesday, McKay reiterated that election reform is a priority, but he said the Senate will proceed in "a thorough and deliberative manner."

The elections supervisors association also will be pushing legislation that would make all supervisors non-partisan, said Browning, the Pasco supervisor of elections.

"We've done that for a number of years, but now more than ever. If you're an elected partisan, then people think you have partisan leanings. . . . We've been battling that ever since I've been in this business, and that's 20 years," Browning said.

In addition, the association will push for changes in the absentee ballot law, based on controversies in Seminole and Martin counties, where local election officials permitted Republican activists to add information to the ballot applications.

The association will recommend eliminating the requirement that voters write in their voter ID number. Instead, Browning said, they could simply be asked for their date of birth.

The problems this election year have led to some backlash against elections supervisors.

At a meeting of Senate Democrats on Wednesday, state Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, asked whether the Legislature has the authority to ask for an investigation of "misfeasance and malfeasance" on the part of supervisors in Martin, Seminole and Palm Beach counties.

-- Staff writers Craig Pittman, Shelby Oppel and Kathryn Wexler contributed to this report.

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