TAMPA, Fla. -- While speaking to a gathering of several hundred of Florida's movers and shakers this past weekend, I learned a valuable lesson: Don't crack any jokes about the state's growing reputation for election foul-ups. It's no joke to them.
But if it's any consolation to Floridians, the rest of America may soon experience their own
assortment of electoral debacles; and one of the contestants in the Sunshine State's most recent balloting controversy, Janet Reno, may become America's new spokesperson for responsible elections.
Here's this week's inside story from Outside The Beltway:
Since the 2000 presidential election nightmare, almost 2,000 pieces of legislation have been introduced in state legislatures across the country to revise the manner in which votes are cast and counted. And in three states, Georgia, Florida and Maryland, bills were passed to eliminate the old punch-card ballot altogether. Many other states, including North Carolina and Texas, have decided to phase out those notorious sources of dented, dimpled and swinging chads. But the early returns suggest that a swinging chad is better than no chad at all.
The problems Florida encountered in its recent Democratic primary between former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and political newcomer Bill McBride were myriad. While it is true that Florida implemented statewide election reforms for 2002, the state allowed each county to develop its own alternative to the old, controversial ballots. Thus, Florida's new balloting procedures were far from uniform.
And the foul-ups were also far from uniform. The many counties that used touch-screen computer systems suffered delays in voting, many of them thanks to the difficulty of
properly installing the systems or adequately training poll workers. In several counties, different kinds of voting machines malfunctioned when optical scanners were unable to read all the votes, which forced a hand count after all. The fallout in Florida ranges from a stall in the pre-primary political momentum of the certified winner in the Democratic primary of governor, McBride, to outrage and finger-pointing from both political parties, to a likely new "job" for Reno. A lot of the worst voting irregularities occurred in South Florida counties where Reno was faring best.
Sources say that in discussions held last Friday, the Reno camp agreed not to contest the election. Instead, they may be the recipient of significant behind-the-scenes support from big-money, pro-McBride lawyers for a Reno "campaign" to reform the elections process in Florida.
Reno might soon be able to expand her efforts to other states. Both Georgia and Maryland experienced glitches with new systems recently tested in smaller elections. And the November contests in both states will severely test whether technology is capable of helping preserve democracy in the 21st century. Consider some of the problems that could occur:
First, there's the issue of part-time volunteer poll workers having to set up and operate sophisticated equipment. In Florida, this led to delays in the opening of many polling places, as well as cases in which touch screens wouldn't respond to voter commands or voting cards were rejected by the machines. Poll workers -- good citizens who give of their time to promote our system of government -- can hardly be expected to deal with the operation of systems that could stump engineers and computer experts.
Second, there is the issue of "uniformity" of the elections process. If citizens in one part of a state are using touch screens, but those elsewhere are circling names on a ballot that is then "read" by a scanner, can anyone really expect the results to be consistent?
Of course, lack of uniformity cuts both ways. Because each elections board in Florida chose its own system, it's tough for the Democratic leaders from heavily Democratic areas to blame their election-day glitches on the Republican administration of Gov. Jeb Bush. And in states such as Georgia, where one centralized system has been adopted, there will be no issue of statewide consistency. Problem ballots will be a comparison of apples to apples.
Then there is the third and by far greatest concern created by the new rage for electronic voting -- fraud. Voting fraud is often alleged but rarely proven. But Janet Reno's first reaction to the problems encountered in the Florida vote made it clear that even the coolest of legal minds can become suspicious when irregularities and glitches appear.
The knee-jerk reaction to problems in Florida will be to blame the entire elections fiasco on Gov. Bush and his administration -- a cute political ploy that likely will prove relatively ineffective with the general election just seven weeks away.
But the broader implication may be that the entire concept of electronic voting is a great idea not ready for prime time. We'll wait to see if Reno has more than one state to help clean up after November.
Matt Towery writes a syndicated column based out of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. He can be reached at www.InsiderAdvantage.com.
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Matt Towery, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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