"Voting Reform; Dead On Arrival in Florida"

"Voting Reform; Dead On Arrival in Florida"
By Carol Schiffler
Issue 36 of YellowTimes.ORG - August 27th - © Copyright
"First Published - August 27th, 2001 - © Copyright YellowTimes.ORG"

(YellowTimes.ORG) -- Back in the good old days when Florida was renowned more for its swaying palm trees than its hanging chads, long-time residents used to indulge themselves in a little demographically dark humor. Sitting in the lawn chair after an afternoon commute that typically featured the sudden stops and suicidal swerves of Cadillac-wielding seniors, they would chuckle to themselves and remark that this was most certainly the place where the rest of the country sent their elderly to die. More recently, Floridians have discovered that this somewhat jaded truism also applies to aging democracies.

When the American democratic process visited Florida on November 7, 2000, it had no intention of retiring there, but as luck would have it, sometime during its extended stay in the Sunshine State it suddenly fell ill. It was rushed to the local GOP-tologist who found that it had several abnormal growths that looked suspiciously like voting rights. Although the patient claimed to feel well enough to make the arduous journey home, a team of black-robed specialists convinced it that these rights must be removed immediately before they spread and threatened a vital organ that, in laymanís terms, is called the "Right Wing."

To make a long story short, the growths were successfully removed, and the Right Wing was saved. But on May 9, 2001, it appeared that the patient was about to suffer a relapse. The new menace arrived in the form of the Florida Voting Reform Act of 2001.

Basically, the new legislation enacted a conglomeration of reforms covering everything from voting machines to re-count standards. First and most obviously, it did away with the infamous punch card ballot, requiring that the outdated technology be replaced in time for the 2002 Florida primaries. It also established both money and funding for the replacement machines and required that any new system selected allow the voter to correct mistakes made while voting.

Additionally, the Act provided for the use of provisional ballots to address cases where persons attempting to vote do not appear on precinct registers. In order to more accurately and efficiently validate voter identity, the state set aside two million dollars to create a centralized voter registration database, and even more funds were allocated for poll worker and voter education.

Finally, a uniform standard was established for the re-counting process, thereby laying to rest, once and for all, the ugly specter of an election that turned Florida into the political version of a Celebrity Death Match.

The day after the bill became law, Governor Bush really outdid himself, visiting chad-plagued Palm Beach county to roll out his new plan and declaring the Florida election Reform Act a benchmark against which standards for the rest of the country would be measured. Alert Floridians immediately realized that something was drastically wrong.

The first thing to draw attention to itself was the clause that changed the way in which the 2002 primaries would be conducted. It seemed anomalous amidst a torrent of rules, regulations, standards, and guidelines that directly addressed Election 2000 hot spots. And odder still, this new law specifically stated that it was in effect only until 2004 at which time legislators could revoke it if they did not like it. Interestingly enough, it would be effective just in time for the 2002 governorís race. Analysts were quick to point out that this legislation very obviously favors a candidate who does not face a great deal of competition in the primaries, (Governor Jeb Bush), and works against candidates campaigning in a crowded field, (everyone else).

Then there was the matter of the voting machines. While election supervisors across the state scrambled to replace punch card technology, Florida soon became overrun with voting machine vendors peddling the latest, the greatest, the newest, and the shiniest. In largely Democratic Pinellas County, the top contender, ES & S, coincidentally has ties to both the supervisor, (whose husband is a consultant with the firm), and her top aide, (whose sister is a lobbyist for it). To make things even worse, the machine sold by ES & S does not produce a paper trail for audit purposes; nor does the touch-screen machine selected by Hillsborough County supervisor, Pam Iorio.

Although local media is spinning the touch-screen machines as the best thing to happen to Florida since the establishment of the first alligator farm, a new study published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concludes that this technology is a "disaster waiting to happen - with enormous opportunities for fraud and accidents that are difficult to detect and almost impossible to rectify.

Hillsborough County, by the way, is split almost evenly between Republican and Democratic voters.

The MIT study was spearheaded by Dr. Peter G. Neumann, the principal scientist at the Computer Science Lab at SRI International and the chairman of the Association for Computing Machinery Committee on Computers; Ms. Iorio, on the other hand, has a Bachelorís degree in Political Science. Although Florida residents have alerted her to the MIT study results, she remains strangely recalcitrant. A two-page letter from Ms. Iorio in response to one residentís concerns, reads like a software companyís promotional brochure while addressing none of the points brought out in the study.

Moving into July, Floridians learned that there was a problem with another one of the governorís new toys. The centralized database proposed to counter the effects of accidental disenfranchisement needed an administrator. The state Senate preferred to rest the database in the hands of the Florida Circuit Court clerks. The clerks put forth a proposal which would cost the state $750,000; $250,000 less than the DBT/Choicepoint contract, but $250,000 more than the elections division was willing to pay. Negotiations ostensibly collapsed, and now guess who is minding the henhouse? The elections division itself.

As a St. Petersburg Times editorial so eloquently stated, "So the agency that could not properly supervise a contractor will now be in charge of its own huge, critical database."

If Florida residents are still concerned that democracy might once again regain its health, spring from its deathbed and take up line dancing, a new law, just passed in the twilight moments of this yearís congressional session, will allay their fears.

The felon purge is back, and responsibility for it lies with the Republican-controlled Division of Elections. Tacked onto the end of a "must-pass" appropriations bill, this legislation was passed through the system so quickly and so silently that Democratic Minority Whip, Lois Frankel, was not even aware of its existence. Until, of course, it was too late. This law allows the division to submit purge lists of voters that it "believes" are felons to elections supervisors for, well, purging. The project will get its funding from money set aside to help counties purchase the newly-mandated voting equipment. Additionally, the legislation is in direct violation of a Florida law that states all voting laws must be sent to the Department of Justice for "pre-clearance." The Department of Justice did not review the law until after it was passed and to date has refused comment.

The good news for Floridians who stubbornly insist that Lady Liberty is not yet ready for the home, is that Secretary of State Katherine Harris will soon be looking for work. Her position is on the stateís chopping block and is slated for elimination in the not so distant future. Yet even this silver lining has a dark cloud. Jeb Bush runs for re-election in 2002. Ms. Harris will be lingering until 2004. As for our gracefully aging democracy, we can only hope it has a living will.

You may e-mail Carol Schiffler at: cschiffler@YellowTimes.ORG

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