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Despite election fixes, questions remain

It happened once, and it could happen again.

Two candidates for president could end up in a virtual dead heat on election night. But next time, Florida would be better prepared.

Shamed into action by the 2000 presidential election controversy, the Legislature banned punch cards, sharpened the meaning of "voter intent," and approved statewide standards for counting and recounting ballots in an attempt to avoid a repeat of the chaos at local canvassing boards.

"The difference is, now we have clear guidelines," says Clay Roberts, director of the state Division of Elections. "The statute was extremely vague, or it didn't say anything at all. And the only place anyone who was interested in the issue could go for an answer was to the courts."

Hanging chad is history. By next fall, Florida voters will cast ballots on touch screens that are designed to prevent overvotes, or on optical scan machines at precincts that are supposed to correct mistakes before the voter leaves a polling place.

The law says that next time a Florida voter draws a circle around a candidate's name instead of properly filling a bubble, the vote will count, because the voter "has made a definite choice." The notoriously confusing Palm Beach "butterfly ballot" likely won't be seen again because the law requires a "clear and unambiguous" ballot.

A state that was a national joke a year ago is now seen as the national leader in election reform. Congressional leaders agreed last week to spend $2.25-billion during the next three years to revamp the nation's voting system and implement changes much like Florida's.

But whether Florida completely fixed its voting problems won't be known until a year from now after a tryout by the people who count most: the voters. Some election experts worry that the 2002 vote will expose work left undone.

For example:

n Florida will spend $5.9-million on a one-time effort to educate voters and train poll workers in how to use the new equipment, despite evidence that confusion among first-time voters and frequent turnover in the poll worker ranks is a recurring problem.

n Money squabbles have slowed a $2-million project to create an accurate statewide voter database. A previous effort by a company hired by the state to purge the rolls of felons was riddled with mistakes, raising the possibility that some voters were denied access to the polls because they were wrongly listed as felons.

n The Legislature made it easier for people to vote by absentee ballot. But it could lead to more mistakes, because there is no way to correct a mistake made on a ballot filled out at a kitchen table.

n The Justice Department has delayed approval of three parts of the new law because of the possible effect on minority voters.

The scramble by counties to buy equipment and train workers by 2002 is complicated by recent revelations that a leading vendor, Sequoia Voting Systems, did not disclose that a top executive is under indictment in Louisiana in connection with voting equipment purchases.

But despite some lingering questions, few are laughing at Florida anymore.

"They have now put the proper law in place to ensure that votes that are cast are counted, and they should get an A for that," says Ion Sancho, the elections supervisor in Leon County.

The National Conference of State Legislatures calls it "the most sweeping election reform proposal passed in the states this year." The American Civil Liberties Union called the new changes "meaningful" and "positive." Even the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which grilled Florida officials about their handling of the election, commended the new law.

But the ACLU lamented the Legislature's decision not to automatically restore the voting rights of felons who have done their time. It said a new Voter's Bill of Rights to be posted at the polls is "contrary to parts of the federal Voting Rights Act."

The Civil Rights Commission said "not all areas of concern were covered" by the law. Skeptical, the commission said it would return to Florida to test the state's ability to implement the law.

Common Cause evaluated all 50 states on their progress in election reform, and gave most states failing grades. Florida was an exception. It was upgraded from an F to a C, winning points for eliminating punch cards and purchasing new equipment. But the state lost points for not automatically restoring voting rights to ex-felons.

The self-styled public advocacy group also was not impressed by the state's remedy for voters who show up at the polls, only to find their names are not on the precinct rolls.

Responding to widespread complaints of voters being turned away from the polls on Election Day 2000, the Legislature will allow "provisional" voting. A voter whose name doesn't appear on the rolls can cast a ballot anyway, subject to later verification. The system only works, however, if the voter reports to his or her correct precinct in the first place.

The new "provisional ballot" does not address the common problem of voters showing up at the wrong precinct _ a problem that will escalate when precinct boundaries change after the 2002 redistricting.

"It's not going to do us a lot of good," said Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Pam Iorio.

The law also requires the Division of Elections to maintain a statewide list of voters. Legislators limited Secretary of State Katherine Harris to negotiating with only one outside firm, the Florida Association of Court Clerks, which keeps a large statewide database for child support enforcement.

But negotiations broke down last June, and the division is designing the database in-house with the help of a private computer firm, a move that troubles some elections supervisors.

"It will just feed the same suspicion and negativity that came out of the 2000 election," said Iorio, immediate past president of the state Association of Supervisors of Elections.

Questions also persist about whether banning punch cards without requiring one uniform type of equipment could pose legal challenges under the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause. The U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision last December found that Florida's use of many different voting systems violated equal protection requirements.

Next week in Miami, a three-judge panel of federal judges will listen to arguments over three parts of the law dealing with provisional ballots, the statewide voter database and the voter's rights and responsibilities section. The lawyer who will argue in opposition to those provisions, JoNel Newman of the Florida Justice Institute, said all three sections have the potential to discriminate against minorities.

But overall, she said, the new law is an improvement.

"We certainly had a lot of room to improve," Newman said.

Times staff writer Tim Nickens contributed to this report.

Florida's 10 big electrion problems

Five problems from November 2000 that were eliminated or reduced by changes in Florida election law:

1.) Partisan wrangling over chad

Solution: Punch card ballots outlawed.

2.) Large numbers of ballots that are read as having more than one vote or no votes at all.

Solution: New voting systems in 41 counties correct mistakes at the precinct, eliminating or reducing "overvotes" and "undervotes" before ballots are counted.

3.) Vague and varying standards for manually counting incorrectly marked ballots

Solution: New rules give counties detailed instructions for what constitutes a vote; touch screen machines in some counties remove guesswork.

4.) Legal battles over when manual recounts are warranted

Solution: New rules remove subjectivity. Manual recounts are automatic when margin of victory is 1/4 of 1 percent or less. When margin is 1/2 of 1 percent, losing parties may ask election officials for a manual recount.

5.) Emotional debates about overseas military absentee ballots

Solution: Ballots completed by overseas voters now may be faxed to election supervisors, improving timeliness. On mailed ballots, election officials will determine whether the ballot was voted in time by looking at the date and witness signature on the return envelope - not the postmark.

Five problems that still exist.

1.) Polling place confusion

New law creates "provisional ballot" for voters whose names don't appear on the precinct list. But it only works if the voter reports to the right precinct. Thousands are likely to show up at wrong precincts after 2002 reapportionment.

2.) Mismarked ballots

People will always make mistakes when putting pen to paper.

3.) Confusing ballots

The new state law requires ballots to be uniform throughout Florida, but election officials still are working on specifics. Whatever they devise, they must wrestle with the difficulties posed by a 1999 constitutional change that improves ballot access for minor-party candidates but also results in large numbers of candidates that can make ballots crowded and unwieldy.

4.) Different opening and closing times for polls

Television networks called the race for Gore before the polls closed in the western Panhandle, the only part of Florida in the Central Time zone. The state Division of Elections will issue a report to legislative leaders by Jan. 1 on the merits of uniform polling place hours.

5.) Potential lawsuits over voting machines

All Florida voters still won't be using the same voting technology in 2002. Some will vote on touch screens. Others will vote on optical scan machines. Critics contend this could still violate equal protection provisions in the Constitution that were cited by the U.S. Supreme Court when it stopped last year's recount.