Early warning

Published: Tuesday, January 13, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 12, 2004 at 9:35 p.m.
Florida's voting system, which became the nation's laughing stock in 2000, still isn't foolproof -- whether the fools be voters or programmers. That became apparent in a special legislative election in Broward and Palm Beach counties last week.
There is no defense against foolish voters. The question is whether the voting machinery and the people who operate it can be error-free. Not likely. Human error can be diminished, but it never can be entirely preventable.
The legislative election actually was a Republican primary, but it was winner take all, with no runoff. Since no Democratic candidate entered the race, all the winner had to do was get the most votes in a seven-candidate field. The winner, confirmed by a recount, turned out to be Ellyn Bogdanoff, by a 12-vote margin out of 10,845 votes cast. The winning percentage was a mere 26.3 percent.
Both counties used the new touch-screen voting machines that are supposed to minimize voter error. They worked pretty well, but no one could explain why 137 "undervotes" were cast, why 137 people went to the touch screens but had no votes recorded.
"People do not go to the polls in a one-issue election and not vote," said Oliver Parker, who finished second.
The problem is there is no way to check whether the 137 nonvoters attempted to vote and somehow were not recorded, or if they simply looked at the choices and walked away. Some elections officials speculated those voters may have been registered Democrats or others who didn't want to vote in a Republican primary. The primary was open to all registered voters because of the lack of candidates from other parties.
Then there were the absentees. In addition to the absentee ballots that were rejected because they lacked proper documentation, two contained no votes for any candidate and three contained votes for more than one. All were thrown out.
None of this would be of much significance if only a single legislative seat were involved. But the Broward-Palm Beach special election, tiny as it was, is a distant early warning of what may come as early as the state's presidential preference primary March 9, when many issues and candidates may be on local ballots. Then the pace will pick up considerably with the Aug. 31 primary for state and local candidates and the Nov. 2 general election in which presidential nominees will be on the ballot.
It was the general election of 2000 that focused so much attention on Florida's flaws. Elections officials have been given fair warning that much work is to be done if the 2004 presidential election is to escape the same kind of ridicule.

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