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Razor-close governor's race triggers fear of recount, memories of 2000

TALLAHASSEE — Like most Florida election officials, Pasco County Supervisor Of Elections Brian Corley dreads a close and confusing vote. So he'll seek help from a higher power Tuesday.

Corley said he plans to gather his poll workers for an "Election Day prayer," a nondenominational request for high turnouts and smooth-running voting machines. The final request: "Please, whoever wins, let it be by a wide margin because we don't want to have a recount."

A decade after hanging chad, butterfly ballots, manual recounts and proof of "voter intent" made Florida the epicenter of electoral chaos, Corley and other Florida election officials are bracing for Tuesday's voting.

They see polls predicting a razor-close contest for governor between Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Alex Sink. And if the results are within one-half of a percentage point, that will trigger a statewide recount and revive memories of the 2000 presidential election that wouldn't end.

Several experts with knowledge of changes to state election laws say a recount this time would run more smoothly, in part because those paper ballots have given way to electronic touch screen machines and optical scan ballots marked by a voter's hand.

"I think it will go smoother, certainly, because of the experiences of 2000," said Ron Meyer, an election-law expert and Sink adviser.

Both sides have lawyered up in case problems arise. Meyer will be at Sink's headquarters in Tampa on Tuesday, overseeing a network of standby volunteer lawyers stationed in most counties. Scott has a legal team in place as well, including former state GOP Chairman Al Cardenas of Miami and Tallahassee lawyer Hayden Dempsey.

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Under state law, the secretary of state will order a machine recount if the margin of victory is within one-half of 1 percent, which would have meant fewer than 24,000 votes in the 2006 governor's race, in which then-Republican Charlie Crist defeated Democrat Jim Davis. County election officials would re-feed ballots through counting machines to double-check results.

If the result is still within a quarter of a percent — for example, fewer than 12,000 votes in 2006 — a manual recount will be ordered, triggering a review of so-called undervotes and overvotes.

For example, if a voter accidentally marks two ovals in one race but clearly writes "not this one" next to an oval, that vote probably would count under the recount. But the vote might not count if the voter makes a check mark in one oval and the mark extends into another oval.

After the two recounts, results would be certified Nov. 16. Legal challenges would be due 10 days later.

Both recounts would end if the number of contested ballots is not high enough to alter the outcome or if the losing candidate concedes to his or her opponent.

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Florida won't see a repeat of 2000's notoriously misaligned butterfly ballot. Used in Palm Beach County, it had a different alignment than sample ballots mailed to voters and resulted in a surge of votes for independent Pat Buchanan, whose name appeared to be where Democrat Al Gore's was supposed to be.

Because of the confusion, Meyer said the campaigns were caught "flat-footed" and began "parachuting lawyers into Palm Beach."

With optical scan ballots — pushed by Gov. Crist and former Democratic U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Boca Raton — there's less of a chance that the ballot itself will cause a problem. The ovals are clearly lined up next to the candidates' names. And since voters are darkening ovals and not punching them, hanging chad will remain in the lore that made "Flori-duh" an embarrassing part of the national political lexicon.

New this year are other important changes. The secretary of state can begin recount proceedings without waiting for direction from the governor, and legal challenges to a statewide race will be filed in one place — Tallahassee — to avoid the legal and political chaos of lawsuits popping up all over.

In addition, said Pinellas County election supervisor Deborah Clark, ballots across Florida look virtually the same now, and there are statewide guidelines for recounts and voter intent.

"In 2000, Florida had a good election process, but the procedures were not uniform," she said.

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But even if a recount were to go more smoothly, Florida's election procedure isn't without critics.

Corley of Pasco County said officials learned a lot from 2000. But he said the examination of voter intent on irregular ballots is an invitation for more lawsuits.

"From voter intent perspective, we've almost come full circle," Corley said.

Added Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho: "We theoretically have a better system, but we still have more work to do."

Sancho said automatic recounts simply run the ballots through the same machines as before but don't check the accuracy of the machines themselves. He said officials don't have to check each ballot but could examine a statistically significant sample to look for errors.

Dan McCrea of the Florida Voters Foundation, a voter advocacy group that pushed for the switch to paper ballots, said the state should require more post-election audits of voting equipment.

"What Florida has done since the embarrassment of 2000 is protect itself from further embarrassment, instead of concentrating on conducting better elections," he said.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Razor-close governor's race triggers fear of recount, memories of 2000 10/31/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 12:47am]

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