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Elections supervisors seek voice in reforms

Led by Hillsborough's Pam Iorio, the state association offers its expertise to lawmakers.

By KATHRYN WEXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 2000


TAMPA -- If the State Association of Supervisors of Elections could send one message, loud and clear, to the Legislature, it would be: "Hey, don't forget about us!"

The association met in Hillsborough County this week to figure out how to have a voice as Florida lawmakers gear up to overhaul the election laws that made Florida the butt of jokes around the world.

"If people who have never run an election start making these decisions, we'll probably end up with what we have now," said Ron Labasky, the association's general counsel.

On Thursday, a couple dozen supervisors from across the state gathered at the Falkenburg Road voting center near Brandon because Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Pam Iorio is the association's president.

The supervisors decided to form committees to study voting systems and ballot recount standards so they can make recommendations to lawmakers as a unified organization. Punch cards, paper ballots and lever machines must be replaced, the officials said, and they hope it's done by the 2002 election.

"We're going to need to move, and move with great haste," said Pasco Elections Supervisor Kurt Browning.

Veteran officials stressed to newly elected supervisors the importance of good working relationships with their legislators. Even if you don't like them, call them, the crowd was told.

"Our most important resource is you," Labasky told several dozen supervisor rookies Wednesday. "Your relationship with your legislator is the best ally we have. They'll look to you to be the experts. Most of them don't have the foggiest."

Among the few things the association agreed on was a push to get rid of the second primary, or runoff, which narrows the window for overseas ballots to arrive. Florida is one of only a handful of states that have a second primary, enacted mostly among Southern states long ago to deprive black people of their right to vote, Iorio said. It has been defended in recent years as a way to ensure that elected officials are chosen by a majority rather than a plurality of voters.

"Let's take the money we take for the second primary and put it toward voter education," Iorio said.

Officials also want some consensus on standards for recounting ballots for all voting systems. In Orange County, for instance, elections officials said their recount consisted of checking ballot machines for malfunctions. Other counties, such as Hillsborough, actually ran the punch card ballots through the machines a second time.

Uniform standards for manual recounts are needed too, they decided. And who better to do it, the supervisors decided, but them?

"We want to draft the standards for recounts," said Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho, to clucks of agreement.

The supervisors said they also want to strike the "onerous lettering" on absentee ballot envelopes that says people are entitled to vote in their homes only if they can't get to the polls. Iorio said she thought people shouldn't be made to feel bad if they merely want to vote by absentee ballot.

Under current state law, counties have seven days for recounts. Even medium-sized counties can't comply if a manual recount is needed, some grumbled.

"That law needs to be changed," said Iorio.

And no longer should voters be required to put their voter identification numbers on requests for absentee ballots, officials said. Birthdates would suffice, they said.

But beyond the issues of policy and technology, the supervisors were also tutored on their image as they launch efforts to change the laws.

"We don't like to use the words "fight' and "against' in the same sentence," Browning corrected one supervisor. "We fight for things. We never fight against them."

- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or wexler@sptimes.com.

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