Election Troubles Already Descending on Florida
By ABBY GOODNOUGH
Published: July 15, 2004
IAMI, July 14 - Three years after Gov. Jeb Bush announced a new voting system that he called "a model for the rest of the nation," Florida is grappling with some of the same problems that threw the 2000 presidential election into chaos, as well as new ones that critics say could cause even more confusion this November.
The touch-screen voting machines intended to cure many of the ills of 2000 have raised a host of other concerns here just four months before the election. A new state rule excludes the machines from manual recounts, and the integrity of the machines was questioned after a problem was discovered in the audit process of some of them. Voting-rights groups filed a lawsuit last week challenging the recount ban, and a Democratic congressman has also sued to request a printed record of every touch-screen vote.
The controversy over the new equipment is just one of Florida's challenges, which also include confirming which voters are ineligible, training poll workers on new policies and processing a flood of new registrations.
State officials announced on Saturday that they would throw out a controversial list used to remove felons from the voting rolls, acknowledging that Hispanic felons were absent from the list. Secretary of State Glenda E. Hood, appointed by Governor Bush last year, had earlier dismissed concerns from lawmakers and advocacy groups about the list of 48,000 suspected felons, which the state made public only after a judge's order.
The United States Civil Rights Commission, which issued a scathing report on the last election here in 2001, will examine problems with the list of felons in a hearing Thursday in Washington.
"The most important thing is to really show the voters that there are reasons to have confidence in these systems," said Bobbie Brinegar, president of the League of Women Voters of Miami-Dade County. "But the mantra has been: 'Trust us.' And that is not good enough."
Jacob DiPietre, a spokesman for Governor Bush, said the governor "is taking full responsibility" for the problem with the list, adding: "His No. 1 priority is to have a seamless election and an election where people have confidence that their vote will be counted."
The state, whose 36-day recount after the 2000 election stunned and divided the nation, is expected to be a major battleground again this year, with President Bush (the governor's brother) and Senator John Kerry, his Democratic opponent, fighting fiercely for its 27 electoral votes. Mr. Bush won Florida by 537 votes last time, but thousands of votes were discarded because of voter error on poorly designed ballots and other problems.
The Republican-led Legislature quickly passed an overhaul of the voting system in 2001, banning the punch-card ballots that caused so much trouble in 2000, giving counties money for new voting equipment and setting guidelines for recounts. It adopted two-thirds of the recommendations from a bipartisan task force that Governor Bush appointed after the 2000 election, but stayed away from some of the more contentious issues.
Most notably, the Legislature passed over recommendations to make the positions of county elections supervisors nonpartisan, and to review the state's policy of permanently stripping felons of their voting rights.
The package that the legislature adopted has played a role in the new turmoil. Tucked into the law was a provision keeping registration records secret. A state judge struck it down on July 2, opening the way for a close examination of the list of suspected felons to purge from the rolls.
Newspapers then reported that the list had a simple but glaring flaw: it guaranteed that no Hispanics, who tend to vote Republican here, would be purged, while thousands of blacks, who lean Democrat, might be purged. Governor Bush moved quickly to it, but he was too late to avoid accusations from Democratic lawmakers and groups. The critics have denounced the attempt to keep the list secret, the touch-screen problems and other troubles as purposeful efforts by Florida's Republican leadership to give President Bush an advantage here.
Unlike her predecessor Katherine Harris, who was co-chairwoman of President Bush's 2000 campaign in Florida even as she oversaw elections, Ms. Hood has publicly stayed away from politics. But critics say that Ms. Hood, a Republican and former Orlando mayor whom Governor Bush appointed, has sown doubt by dismissing criticism of the electoral system and by not answering questions sufficiently.
The abrupt resignation of Ed Kast, the state's director of elections, last month - he said that he wanted to pursue other interests - only deepened public distrust, said Sandy Wayland, a member of the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition.
While previous secretaries of state were elected by the people, Ms. Hood was the first appointed by the governor, the result of a 2003 change in the State Constitution. She reports to Governor Bush, who is therefore more directly responsible for her office's successes and failures.
"She is dealing with some really sophisticated, aggressive partisans," said Mr. de Haven Smith, speaking of the Jeb Bush administration. "She has been a good soldier, getting up and saying, 'Everything is fine, not to worry.' And come to find out, some of the problems that people feared were actually there. "
The coalition asked Ms. Hood's office last month to allow an independent review of the touch-screen machines now used by 15 of 67 counties, including Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. The office said only counties were authorized to seek such audits, and told reporters that the request was an effort to undermine voter confidence.
Through a public-records request, the coalition obtained e-mail messages and other documents from Miami-Dade election officials who referred to a flaw in the touch-screen equipment's ability to audit election results, a back-up way of recording votes. The e-mail messages date back as far as June 2003.
Constance Kaplan, the Miami-Dade County elections supervisor, publicly acknowledged the problem this spring. This month, the company that makes the machines, Elections Systems and Software, provided software to correct the flaw, which the county and state say will not affect the machines' accuracy.
"It is important to note that the anomaly was rare, and all votes were counted as the anomaly did not affect the vote itself but rather the audit after," Ms. Hood's office wrote in a statement Tuesday.
Nicole de Lara, Ms. Hood's communications director, said that Ms. Kaplan's office had "unfortunately" not alerted Ms. Hood to the problem, and that she first learned of it from an article in the Daily Business Review in late May. Some critics suspect that Mr. Kast's resignation was related to the malfunction, but Mr. Kast said in a telephone interview that it was not.
Ms. Wayland is among many here who contend that counties like Miami-Dade and Broward adopted touch-screen technology too soon, swayed by aggressive lobbyists. The 52 counties that do not use touch-screen equipment use optical-scan machines, which produce records that can be manually recounted.
A recent analysis by the Sun-Sentinel found that touch-screen machines in South Florida failed to record votes eight times more often than optical-scan machines in the March presidential primary.
Nonetheless, Ms. de Lara said touch-screen machines are wholly reliable for tabulating votes. She added that they would never require a recount because under state law, the only reason for a manual recount is to "voter intent" when a voter makes too many or too few choices. Touch-screen machines do not allow people to vote for more than one candidate, she said. And if people do not choose any candidate for a given office, that is their prerogative, she said.
The rule says no manual recounts will be conducted when votes are cast by touch-screen machine.
The election reform coalition and other groups have also expressed concerns about a new policy on provisional ballots, used by Floridians if poll workers cannot verify their registration on the spot. The Legislature decided that provisional ballots cast outside a voter's home precinct can be thrown out, which voting-rights groups call unfair.
Florida is one of several states where people are questioning touch-screen technology. California's secretary of state, Kevin Shelley, has prohibited the use of machines from Diebold Election Systems in four counties for the November election, and has ordered that touch-screen systems purchased after July 1, 2005, produce a paper record that is verifiable by the voter. "There's no question in my mind that ultimately there will be paper trails in every county in Florida," said Congressman Robert Wexler, whose suits challenging paperless voting systems are on appeal. "The only question is when."