Florida redux - Election process goes sour

Friday, September 13, 2002

The confusion and frustration over voting in Florida raised its ugly head again this week. After holding the presidential election hostage two years ago, voters in some Florida counties were stymied once again by malfunctioning equipment and inept election officials.

All eyes were on this week's Florida primary not only because it was the first statewide election since the 2000 fiasco, but also because Janet Reno, U.S. attorney general in President Bill Clinton's administration, was seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.

Under this magnifying glass, even the smallest snafu would certainly make headlines.

But the problems weren't small. They were enormous.

New voting equipment that was supposed to put an end to the era of hanging chads did not work properly in key counties with the most voters. As a result, the election is so close that Floridians still don't know if Reno will be on November's general election ballot or whether it will be Bill McBride, a Tampa lawyer who led by a scant 11,000 votes with 1 percent of 1.3 million votes still unavailable due to the poll problems.

It is important to note that significant improvements were made in Florida's voting system.

Of the state's 67 counties, only 14 reported voting problems. The biggest glitches were in Miami-Dade and Broward counties -- sound familiar? -- where new touch-screen voting machines were not tested before Tuesday's election.

Two other populous counties -- Palm Beach and Hillsborough -- also used new touch-screen equipment and had few problems. Both counties ran mock elections in advance to sort out technical difficulties and to make sure election officials were trained and familiar with the new equipment.

In another echo of the 2000 presidential election, Reno said she was contemplating legal action to sort out the final results in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. What candidate wouldn't want some assurance that the results of a badly botched election were accurate?

Floridians may be in for a lengthy delay before they know who the Democratic standard bearer will be as the state gets ready to choose a governor. (Incumbent Republican Gov. Jeb Bush is seeking re-election.) This means that campaigning for the November election just two months away may well be overshadowed by courtroom battles and recounts.

From a distance, it is safe to wag a finger at Florida election officials and assign blame for all that went wrong this week. It may be weeks, however, before we know all of what went wrong and how it could have been avoided.

At a minimum, it seems that election officials in Miami-Dade and Broward counties failed to use basic common sense in preparing for the primary vote, in spite of having spent millions of dollars while getting ready.

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