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'Normal' is flexible term for Florida elections

With Recount set to debut on HBO television next week, it's worth asking: Is Florida ready for the next election?

Voter turnout in November is expected to be huge, and the technology for most Florida voters will change. Out with touch screens, in with paper ballots fed into optical scanners.

The eyes of the nation will again be on Florida, a pivotal swing state with 27 electoral votes.

"I find varying degrees of readiness, but nothing abnormal at this point," says the state's top elections official, Secretary of State Kurt Browning.

Nothing abnormal means this: Elections officials fretting over the prospect of long lines or a lack of trained poll workers. And there's ongoing legal challenges by groups that say Florida erects unfair barriers to voting.

Browning, a former Pasco elections supervisor, has just finished a tour of 17 counties — including Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas — switching to new machines from touch screen technology. (Hernando already used optical scan equipment). He wanted to see for himself how well they're making the transition.

One of his last stops was in Pinellas, where he learned that Supervisor Deborah Clark plans to set up absentee ballot drop-off locations for convenience of people voting by mail. It's a good idea as long as ballots are kept secure, Browning said.

But Browning has other worries, including lawsuits seeking to strike down laws enacted by the Legislature that deal with voter registration.

The League of Women Voters wants to repeal hefty fines for missed deadlines for submitting voter registration forms. The all-volunteer group says the fines undermine registration drives, and that Browning should be leading the charge to make it as easy as possible to register.

The NAACP and other groups oppose a "no match, no vote" law that could prevent people from having their votes count if state databases can't match a voter's driver's license number or last four Social Security digits on a voter registration form. Lawyers say there's no proof of fraud and that the law disproportionately affects Hispanics and African-Americans.

"(Browning) has been adamant that he's going to keep in place a system that puts Floridians in jeopardy, for no reason," says Justin Levitt, counsel to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University law school, which represents the NAACP and others.

Levitt said the case has shown that a bad match was due to mistakes by clerks entering data, not voters trying to skirt the law.

Browning is adamant that he has an obligation to protect the integrity of voter rolls: "How do they want us to ensure the accuracy of the rolls if we can't verify numbers?" he asks. "I feel very strongly about this case."

Next week, Browning will give a pep talk to election supervisors at their conference in Pensacola. Offering a preview, he said: "We have a mission, and that is to have the very best, error-free election we possibly can."

It's hard to imagine Browning curled up on a sofa with a box of popcorn watching a DVD of Recount, the HBO movie that depicts the 36-day crisis following the 2000 presidential election.

No, his idea of a good time is not a movie that celebrates Florida's electoral dysfunction.

Referring to the need for a smooth 2008 election cycle, Browning prefers to quote a NASA flight director whose words were captured in another movie, Apollo 13.

"Failure is not an option," Browning says.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

'Normal' is flexible term for Florida elections 05/16/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 19, 2008 10:26am]
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