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New rule set on touch-screen recounts; voter rejections fought


Associated Press   15 October 2004

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The state set a new rule for recounting touch-screen ballots Friday - just 18 days before the presidential election. The move angered voter rights groups that had sought to help shape the language.

In other Friday actions affecting Florida voting, a Miami judge urged a quick trial on a lawsuit challenging the rejections of more than 10,000 voter registration cards, and Palm Beach County officials completed a critical test of their touch-screen system after a computer crash delayed it by several days.

Secretary of State Glenda Hood's office released the new recount rules late in the day.

If the Nov. 2 election is as close as the 2000 contest between President Bush and Democrat Al Gore, county elections supervisors will be told to review each electronic ballot image to see if the number of so-called undervotes, those on which no candidate was chosen, matches the undervote totals given by the machine.

If the numbers don't match up, the machines will be checked for problems. If that doesn't solve the discrepancy, the elections officials are told to trust that the original machine count was accurate.

The new rule is a far cry from what a coalition of voter activists were seeking.

The groups, which include the American Civil Liberties Union, Florida Common Cause, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the American Way Foundation and others, met with Department of State officials Tuesday to present a proposal and discuss a recount rule.

They wanted voters in the 15 counties that use touch-screen voting machines to have the option of using a paper ballot. They also wanted to create a process to make sure all votes cast match the number of people who voted and have a federal court oversee a recount if one were necessary.

The groups successfully sued the state to overturn a previous rule that banned the inclusion of touch-screen machines in manual recounts. More than half of Florida's 9.8 million registered voters are in counties that use touch-screen machines. The rest use an optical scan ballot.

During Tuesday's meeting, the state offered a draft of its proposal and said it would welcome suggestions from the coalition. It implemented the rule before the activists could respond.

"I don't know why they invited us in if they weren't going to work with the voting rights groups to begin with," said Howard Simon, executive director for the ACLU in Florida. "I would have liked to have entered into a genuine dialogue with them as to how it could be done, but they didn't give us an opportunity."

Department of State spokeswoman Alia Faraj said the coalition knew it had to act quickly.

"Our general counsel was quite clear at the meeting that we needed comments ASAP," Faraj said. "Time was of the essence."

The state didn't take up the suggestion of providing the paper ballot option, saying it didn't make logistical sense. It also didn't agree to give up oversight of a recount.

"It seems like every time they have a decision to make, somehow they find a way not to come down on the side of voters or the side of protecting the right to vote," Simon said.

State law requires a manual recount if the election is decided by less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the vote.

That was the case in 2000, when Bush defeated Gore by 537 votes out of 6 million cast. Thousands of punch card ballots were scrutinized for dimpled, pregnant and hanging chads during five weeks of recounts that were eventually halted by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court criticized the state for not having uniform measures in place to conduct a recount. The state tried to solve the problem by getting rid of punch card ballots and allowing counties to use touch-screen machines.

But critics say there is no way to verify touch-screen votes and question whether undervotes are the result of a deliberate choice by the voter or the machine simply losing the vote.

Meanwhile, in West Palm Beach, election officials successfully counted every ballot cast on electronic voting machines in a test postponed by computer trouble Tuesday.

"This shows we are ready for an election in Palm Beach County," elections supervisor Theresa LePore said.

Critics said the computer trouble shows why a paper trail is needed for touch-screen machines.

With the election looming, U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King of Miami urged quick work in a lawsuit against Florida's largest counties over the rejection of more than 10,000 voter registration forms that officials say were improperly filled out.

Nearly 45 percent of the challenged forms in one county, Duval, came from blacks.

The lawsuit challenges state rules that let counties disqualify people who provided a signature affirming their eligibility to vote but failed to list an identification number, such as from a driver's license, or failed to check boxes affirming they were citizens, were mentally competent and were not felons.

A coalition of unions named Hood and election supervisors in Duval, Orange, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties in the suit. The Advancement Project, a social action group that helped file it, argued that the rejection practices had a disparate effect on minorities.

"If the plaintiffs are right, they've got a strong prevailing right. We're talking about voting," said King, who did not immediately set a trial date.


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