TALLAHASSEE — Florida's top voting official says the state is ready for a smooth election, but his latest headache involves reports that ineligible felons may remain on the rolls.
"We are not taking anything for granted. Florida is ready," an upbeat Secretary of State Kurt Browning told Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet on Tuesday.
His message was quickly undercut by questions of possible voter fraud raised by two Republicans, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, based largely on media reports.
Bronson said the "biggest disenfranchisement" would be that noncitizens or criminals cast ballots. McCollum raised what he called the "ACORN question," whether the nonprofit group aligned with Democrats was fraudulently registering voters.
No, Browning said, citing "a scattering of isolated incidences" of fraudulent forms discovered by election officials (two in Seminole County). He said the possibility of fraud is why he backs the voter verification or "no match" law that requires a computer match of a voter's driver's license number.
McCollum sounded skeptical. "I don't want to see that kind of fraud, and the people who are out there are saying it's much more widespread than you've described," he said.
Questions also surfaced over a South Florida Sun-Sentinel report that 30,000 felons remain eligible to vote even though their rights have not been restored in the clemency process. When first questioned about the number, Browning told the paper he was shocked that it wasn't higher, a statement he now says he wished he hadn't made.
He said Tuesday his agency has found 108,000 voters whose names scored "hits" on a state criminal database. The names have not yet been reviewed, and Browning said they all won't be before Election Day.
In addition, the state said that of more than 24,000 names reviewed from Jan. 1, 2006, to Sept. 29, 2008, 2,134 were deemed ineligible and sent to counties with a recommendation for removal. Of that number, 328 names were still on the rolls as of Tuesday.
"We want to err on the side of the voter," Browning said.
Florida's system of scrubbing voter rolls for ineligible voters has a checkered history. A data firm gave the state a flawed list of ineligible voters before the 2000 election, and Crist, elected in 2006, has emphasized the need to give felons a "second chance" by restoring their civil rights more quickly.
"I think all the people who are eligible to vote should vote," Crist said Tuesday, pledging complete confidence in Browning.
Browning also promised that everybody who registered to vote by last week's deadline would be on the rolls, and that people will wait in long lines to vote — but that's not a bad thing.
"Lines are a sign of a healthy democracy," Browning said.
Chief Financial Officer Alex-Sink, the Cabinet's lone Democrat, raised fears of "yet another fiasco" like the one in 2000, and cited the decision by Pinellas Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark to open only three early voting sites in a county with a large number of elderly voters.
"We're just really afraid there will be enormously long lines," Sink said.
Browning defended Clark, noting the high cost of early voting and that she has 14 secure drop-off sites for voters to deliver their mailed ballots.
Steve Bousquet is at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.