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Florida slow to forestall elections crisis

Last : 14 July 2004


Election supervisors are sighing with relief over the state's decision to back off a voter-roll purge of suspected felons that could have barred tens of thousands of people from casting ballots this fall. Their sentiments are understandable: Independent investigations had already turned up numerous problems with the list.

But the state's election-credibility gap is still gaping, a fact Gov. Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Glenda Hood refuse to acknowledge. The next looming issue: The state's failure to require an auditable record of votes cast in the 16 counties that use touch-screen voting systems.

The need for such an accounting is all too evident. Even before touch-screen, paperless balloting systems became popular in Florida, there were numerous reported problems in other states. But now the state has its own history to review, and it's not reassuring. An analysis by the Sun-Sentinel of South Florida shows a significantly higher rate of "undervotes" in counties that used touch-screen systems in the March Democratic primaries. It's a discrepancy that's hard to explain.

An undervote occurs when a voter fails to choose a candidate in a particular race. Undervotes can be intentional a voter might choose to pass on a particular race because they don't know or don't like the candidates or they can be caused by a problem with the vote-tabulation system. In counties like Volusia and Flagler, voters use paper ballots that are counted by machines, giving officials a record to inspect to insure a voter's intent.

Some undervotes are to be expected. But the Sun-Sentinel's analysis showed that, on average, undervotes were almost 10 times more likely with touch-screen machines. Are voters in touch-screen counties inherently more lackadaisical? That's a question state leaders don't seem prepared to answer.

Nor have they explained why the felon list was so inaccurate. Florida leaders have had four years to correct the problems that turned many eligible voters away from the polls in 2000. They paid $4.2 million to Accenture, a spinoff of Arthur Andersen, to prepare the purge list. Yet the list wasn't available until last month and wasn't revealed until CNN and other news organizations sued to get it.

Only then did the public learn that many of the so-called "felons" on the list including a sizable number of black voters were wrongly included. Over the weekend, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune made another startling determination: The list almost completely excluded Hispanic voters, even those who actually were ineligible to vote due to felony convictions.

Somebody at the state should have known about this problem but if they did, they held silent until outside investigations brought it to light. And had the list never been made public, that disclosure might have come too late for thousands of voters.

Election season is rapidly approaching. But there's still time to answer these questions, and to look for ways to restore the faith of Florida's voters. Bush and Hood should explain why the purge process went so badly awry, and how they plan to prevent such problems in the future. More importantly, they should act immediately to secure the sanctity of ballots cast in the upcoming elections. If there's not time to provide printers for touch-screen systems, the state should consider leasing optical-scan equipment to replace the paperless systems.

And where would they get the money? Here's one suggestion: Start by asking Accenture to give back the $4.2 million it was paid to produce the inaccurate purge list.

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