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Voting conflicts

Only the naming of an impartial selection committee

can rescue Pinellas County from the multiple conflicts

contaminating its choice of new voting machines.

Pinellas County should be close to replacing its punch card voting system, which contributed to last year's botched presidential election. Instead, a new controversy has arisen that could shake public confidence in the process.

Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark recommended two voting-machine vendors to the County Commission, but she failed to inform commissioners that her husband, Richard Clark, has a business relationship with one of the companies. Deborah Clark told commissioners that Sequoia and ES&S (Elections Systems & Software) were the best companies to consider when buying new voting machines. Richard Clark was employed by ES&S for five years but quit when his wife was appointed elections supervisor last year. He still works for ES&S, however, only now as an independent contractor.

Deborah Clark points out that in June she sought an opinion from the Commission on Ethics, which found no conflict of interest in her decision. We are not suggesting that she used her position to help her husband or his employer. But Clark should be sensitive to the appearance of her actions.

This is no trivial matter. The County Commission is trying to decide whether to replace punch card machines with optical scanners or touch-screen voting. Not only are ease and accuracy of the vote count at stake, but also millions of dollars. Optical scanners are estimated to cost more than $3-million and touch-screen systems from $14-million to $21-million.

Since the Legislature outlawed punch cards earlier this year, most Florida counties are scrambling to replace their faulty voting machines. Seeing the potential for a huge payday, ES&S hired a lobbyist, former Secretary of State Sandra Mortham, who just so happened to be the Florida Association of Counties' lobbyist, as well. The association, which represents and advises the state's county commissioners, worked a lucrative deal with ES&S. The association is endorsing ES&S machines in return for a commission on each sale.

The arrogance of the Florida Association of Counties is astounding. It is telling commissioners to pick a voting maching company based on self-interest rather than on price or performance. Its greed has removed the association as a responsible voice on this issue, and county commissioners should ignore it.

Mortham should be ashamed, as well. She could have fixed some of Florida's voting problems when she was secretary of state. Now that it is profitable for her to do so, she has taken an interest. Mortham's sister, Karen Butler, is Deborah Clark's assistant and was involved in rating the vendors in Pinellas County. Butler denies discussing the subject with Mortham, but that no longer is the point.

Taxpayers, who will pick up the tab for new voting equipment, are left with little reason to trust their officials to make the best decision. Deborah Clark says she has no intention of withdrawing from vendor selection. "It is my responsibility as supervisor of elections," she said. That's too bad. It is also Clark's responsibility to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest that would undermine public trust in her office.

There is only one way to return credibility to the procedure of picking a voting system and a vendor for Pinellas County. The County Commission should name an impartial selection committee to accept and rank competitive bids from all interested companies. Neither Clark nor Butler should be a member of that committee. And commissioners should publicly distance themselves from Mortham and the position taken by the Florida Association of Counties.

If commissioners fail to return legitimacy to the process, the embarrassment of November's voting fiasco won't be the last.