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Posted on Sun, Nov. 30, 2003

Hurdles remain
Florida's voter database won't be ready in time


Florida has spent tens of millions of dollars on new equipment, voter education and poll worker training since the 2000 election meltdown. But none of those reforms will matter if the would-be voter is denied a chance to cast a ballot to begin with.

And after spending almost $6 million to create - and then fix - a database to ensure accuracy in county voter rolls by weeding out ineligible voters, Florida will not meet a federal requirement to establish a central voter-registration database in time for the 2004 presidential election. The state now is seeking a waiver until 2006.

Many state lawmakers seem unconcerned. A Division of Elections on how the state is implementing federal requirements earlier this month before a Senate appropriations subcommittee lasted about five minutes and drew no questions from committee members.

But Rep. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to a task force to fix the state's election problems, called the failure to establish the central registration database "a major concern."

"Why, in four years, they can't get this thing done?" Smith asked. "I would think that this administration, after all the problems in 2000, would make sure that no one could bring up this issue again. You would think this would be a top priority for them."

State elections officials say that, even without a centralized list to federal specifications, there won't be a replay of the 2000 problems. And there's a backup plan - even if someone's name is not on the precinct rolls, the person will be allowed to cast a provisional ballot.

Possibly thousands of voters were turned away from the polls in 2000, when their names were removed erroneously from county voter rolls because the state Division of Elections sent counties an inaccurate list of 173,142 supposed felons and others not qualified to vote.

"When they went to vote, they were told they were criminals, and their names had been purged from the files. We got a great number of calls," said Anita Davis, who was president of the Tallahassee branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at the time.

It's not known how many people were barred in error from voting, but Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho found his office could verify that only 34 names on the list of 694 supposed felons in his county were actually felons ineligible to vote.

"We utilized that list all the way through the 2000 election," Sancho said. "At that point, independent of our own verification, we could not use that list because it was so inaccurate."

In fact, five counties - including Palm Beach, Broward and Duval, three of the state's largest - refused to use the list at all. That caused the flip side of the coin: voters given ballots, even though they may have been felons who were ineligible to vote.

Trying to get it right

Civil-rights advocates say one voter turned away is one too many, and most think that ineligible voters shouldn't be allowed to vote. But noted elections expert Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said those problems were minor compared with ballots that clearly showed a voter's intent, yet were thrown out because antiquated machines couldn't read them.

"Just a handful of felons who shouldn't have, voted, compared to thousands and thousands of ballots that were disqualified for various reasons," Sabato said.

The NAACP and other civil-rights groups sued state and local elections officials, citing the purge list and other factors that they said denied blacks their voting rights. The lawsuit was settled in 2002, with the state agreeing to restore names of voters improperly removed, implement more stringent criteria for verifying names on future purge lists and create a new position to monitor Florida's compliance with the National Voter Registration Act.

Currently, the state sends purge lists to counties naming only those verified as deceased through the Department of Health and those who submitted change of address forms with the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. It plans to have a new felons list - cross-checked with the state Department of Law Enforcement - available for the 2004 general election.

State Division of Elections Director Ed Kast says that county elections supervisors are still responsible for double-checking the names on the purge lists they get from the state to verify that a voter is indeed not qualified to vote.

Still, the state signed a $1.8 million contract with technology consulting giant Accenture to begin creating a new centralized voter database that could be d by county elections supervisors. That's on top of the $4 million it paid to Database Technologies - which since has been bought by Atlanta-based ChoicePoint - to create the first ill-fated voter purge list.

It's not known how much of the old database can be salvaged in a new database meeting federal requirements. Kast said the division was evaluating the database and had hired extra people to work on it.

In the meantime, the state's new provisional ballot will give that would-be voter a second chance of sorts. The ballots, sealed in an envelope-within-an-envelope with the person's identifying information on the outside, will be opened and counted if further research shows the voter is indeed registered in the precinct where he or she tried to vote.

"We're working hard to make sure nobody gets turned away from the polls that shouldn't be turned away," Kast said.

Leon County's Sancho, at least, remains skeptical.

"We will continue our own practice of reviewing the material for accuracy before acting upon it," Sancho said.

Contact Capitol Bureau Chief Nancy Cook Lauer at (850) 222-6729 or nlauer@tallahassee.com.

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