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More Florida Ballot Woes On Tap?

By David Paul Kuhn, Chief Political Writer

Four years after the Florida vote-counting fiasco, concerns over the reliability of ballots in the Sunshine State remain. Though improvements have been made, with less than four months until the state's 27 electoral votes go up for grabs, the lack of a paper trail has belied confidence in new electronic voting equipment.

Originally meant to replace the now infamous hanging chads of punch-card ballots, as well as to simplify the voting process, the new touch-screen machines will be used in 15 of 67 counties, including Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward.

State law forbids recounts on touch-screen voting machines. But the machines' ability to back up records, a glitch discovered in the audit process, has sparked increased public criticism.

On Monday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft requesting that the federal government audit the electronic equipment.

Despite rising anxiety, especially from Democrats, Florida's Department of State remains confident, pointing out that no voting results have been lost since the machines were first used in 2002.

In 2000, seemingly everything in Florida went wrong. The nation endured 36 days of nail-biting ballot recounts following Election Day before a
Supreme Court decision awarded the state to George W. Bush by just 537 votes, insuring him the presidency.

The issues then were largely twofold: hanging chads made reading punch-card ballots subjective, and thousands of African Americans claimed they were dissuaded from voting or put on the felons list by error.

But after years of rancor between Democrats and Republicans, the 48,000-person list of suspected felons was discarded this month following embarrassing reports that Hispanic felons were absent from the list. (Hispanics are far more likely to vote Republican than African Americans.) Once convicted of a felony in Florida, you are stripped of your voting rights for life.

"African Americans are disproportionately affected by the felons list," said Susan McManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. "But
Florida also has the provisional ballots, the first state to do that. If there is question to my vote's validity, I can still vote and check it later against the master list."

However, state election law allows a provisional ballot to be counted only if the vote is cast at the voter's assigned precinct. In McManus' view, a greater electoral concern is that Florida absentee balloting policies no long require a witness signature.

"In the course of petition drives we have uncovered more and more signature fraud," she said. "If the election is close and you have an onslaught of absentee ballots coming, it will take a lot to count them and people are worried in terms of fraud and absentee ballots."

Studies showed Democrats and minorities made a majority of the ballot errors in the 2000 election. For this reason, it was originally thought Democrats might benefit most from the new electronic machines.

Nevertheless, Democrats want a printed record of each vote. Voting rights groups are also challenging the legal restriction on recounting votes cast on the electronic machines. Before implementing a paper trail, this restriction must be amended. Other concerns have arisen that the machines themselves could intimidate voters.

"You have two dynamics working at the same time in Miami. You have, relative to other places, low levels of education, and that works against any use of technology," said Ben Bishin, a political scientist at the University of Miami. "And we have a large group of senior citizens. Poll volunteers tend to be senior citizens who are uncomfortable with technology."

African Americans still feel especially bruised, many in Florida would say angry, by the 2000 voting problems. In Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's visit to the NAACP national convention last week, he told the crowd, "We're not only going to make sure every vote counts, we're going to make sure that every vote is counted."

The crowd roared in applause, earning Kerry a standing ovation.

The Kerry campaign has already conscripted its own army of attorneys, outside the party, to monitor Florida precincts and insure all votes are counted. It may also file preemptive lawsuits to attempt to amend several voting policies. The Bush campaign is ready to respond in kind, though its legal preparations aren't as vast.

Nearly four years after the country's deep split over the breakdown of the electoral process in Florida, neither political party wants a repeat of the debacle. But both campaigns are ready.

By David Paul Kuhn

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