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Michael Peltier: Voting issues again put Florida in spotlight


June 21, 2004

TALLAHASSEE — Will it be deja vu all over again?

The infamously quotable Yogi Berra likely did not have Florida's election system in mind when he coined the phrase now inseparable with things that happen over and over again. But the baseball linguist's axiom could well describe the predicament Florida election officials face as they try to regain the trust of a nation preparing for another nail-biter of a presidential election now less than five months away.

After millions in state, federal and local money has been spent to upgrade Florida's election system, officials have faced a new wave of criticism in recent weeks over who should get to vote in November and how should those votes be recorded.

On the voter front, Gov. Jeb Bush last week tried to waylay fears that felons whose voting rights have been restored have been incorrectly purged from the state's voter databases. Unlike most states, Florida does not automatically restore voting rights to felons when they finish their sentences, but instead requires felons to go through a hearing process to get their rights back.

On Thursday, Bush announced that election officials over the past 12 months had restored the voting rights of 21,000 felons whose names were erroneously kept off the rolls. Last month, state election officials estimated that as many as 47,000 felons remained on the voter rolls despite having those rights taken away. They called on local supervisors of elections to scour their voting ranks of those who don't belong.

"Right now what we're trying to do is take a look at what we've got and what's the best way to process that list," said Kay Clem, former president of the Florida Supervisor of Elections Association. "How are we going to investigate those names? There are some issues there."

Clem said some defendants charged with felonies, for example, pleaded out to misdemeanor charges instead. In those cases, voting rights should not have been taken away.

"That's the record that we need to get, the final conviction order from out local clerk of courts," Clem said.

Beyond the rights of felons, the state is also coming under fire from those who don' t trust the new technology that backers say allows voters to touch a video monitor to cast their ballot without needing a printed receipt.

For the techno phobic, the touch-screen voting is especially suspect. Those fears were fanned two weeks ago following stories that election officials in Miami-Dade County had raised concerns over glitches in their electronic voting system.

U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, who in April filed suit in federal court to force counties using touch-screen technology to paper printers to confirm to voters actions, called on Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist to investigate.

But paper receipts alone may not be the answer. Earlier this year, Collier County Supervisor of Elections Jennifer Edwards said in a letter published on the editorial pages of the Naples Daily News that the touch-screen technology is accurate and has been thoroughly tested to ensure its reliability.

Paper jams and the need to print ballots in at least two languages represent only a few of the problems a printed receipt could bring, she said.

"On the surface, printers may seem to be a quick confidence builder and a simple solution for voters with doubts about technology," Edwards said. "In reality, they would create an entirely new set of problems."

What's not in question is that all parties involved want the upcoming election to go off without a hitch because the eyes of the nation will be trained on Florida. For, as Berra also pointed out, "You can observe a lot by watching."

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