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Fair elections

Rest of nation learned from Florida, but Florida didn't

Opinion in the Charlotte Observer  06 October 2004

Jimmy Carter's Atlanta-based Carter Center has monitored elections in 50 nations to help ensure a fair vote and accurate tally. Yet when he describes the center's activities to U.S. or foreign audiences, one question is inevitable: Why don't you observe the election in Florida?

Ah, Florida, the land of the hanging chad, where in 2000 enough ballots were disputed, mismarked or rejected to have made Al Gore president.

Florida was the train wreck of U.S. elections. Antiquated procedures, inadequate laws and highly partisan administration produced an outcome that was scandalous even by international standards. Whether Al Gore or George W. Bush lost more votes can be debated, but hardly anyone argues that the final tally reflected how Floridians thought they voted.

In a Sept. 27 column in the Washington Post, President Carter lamented that Florida still falls far short of meeting basic international standards for fair elections.

The biggest problem is political domination of the process. Florida voting officials, Mr. Carter wrote, have been "highly partisan, brazenly violating a basic need for an unbiased and universally trusted authority to manage all elements of the electoral process."

That's an understatement. Four years ago the state's top election official, Secretary of State Katherine Harris, co-chaired the Bush-Cheney campaign in the state. Her successor, now in charge of the process, was a Bush elector in 2000.

A few months ago Florida was up to its old tricks. The state attempted to purge convicted felons from the voter roles, only to back off when it became clear that many of the people on the state's list weren't felons at all.

U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., offered this response to criticism: "They're alleging somehow we're a third-world nation in our ability to handle ballots," he told CNN. He got that right.

Florida is a bad example, but in fact poorly run or corrupt elections occur in some areas under Democratic control, too.

What about North Carolina? We're much better than Florida. Our state has a system of independent elections supervisors who report to bipartisan elections boards at the county and state levels. Board members must stay out of electoral politics.

North Carolina gets a lower mark on voting machinery. Some counties use the paper ballots that made Florida infamous. Others use voting machines so antiquated that extra machines must be cannibalized to get parts for repair. State officials hope to have new machines by 2006.

South Carolina offers an encouraging contrast: 15 counties (including York) have some of the newest voting technology on the market.

The keys to fair elections are good laws, independent supervision, adequate machinery and public vigilance. Florida is one for four this year partisan lawyers will be watching every step of the process. In North Carolina we're much better off, but not yet where we should be.


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