FLORIDA APPROVES overhaul in election system

Saturday, May 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ The Florida Legislature passed a sweeping election reform package that comes six months after the state's chads and butterfly ballots sent the presidential race into turmoil.

Observers hailed the decision as a landmark step that could lead to election reform in other states.

``Florida led the country into a disastrous election morass, but now it's showing the way out of the morass,'' said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor who is conducting a nationwide elections reform study.

``It's much less likely Florida will ever be in that embarrassing position again,'' he said.

The $32 million measure now goes to Gov. Jeb Bush, who is expected to sign it as early as next week. Lawmakers passed the legislation Friday before they adjourned for the session.

``We took advantage of the scrutiny the state got and rather than trying to relive the past, we've been focusing on making sure 2002 looks a lot different,'' Bush said.

The plan, approved 120-0 by the House and 38-2 by the Senate, will establish uniform guidelines for recounts in close elections. It will also eliminate mechanical lever voting and punchcard and hand-counted paper ballots.

Instead, every precinct will have optical-scan ballot systems for the 2002 elections. The plan earmarks $24 million for counties to buy the equipment.

``In one word, hooray!'' said Deanie Lowe, the Volusia County elections supervisor. ``I am just thrilled to death over what they've accomplished.''

The legislation requires a machine recount if the margin of victory in any race is half a percent or less and a manual recount of the overvotes and undervotes _ ballots where voting machines pick up multiple choices or no clear choice _ if the margin is one-quarter of 1 percent or less.

The secretary of state must also draft rules on how to read ambiguous ballots. During last fall's recounts, counties used differing standards, creating disputes over hanging, pregnant and dimpled chads.

Also, provisional ballots will be given to people who are not on voter rolls but say they are eligible to vote. Elections officials will later determine if the ballots are valid. Last fall, some voters, many of them black, complained they were wrongly denied the right to vote.

Florida's governor was eager to change the state's maligned election system after recounts delayed his brother's election for 36 days and left many Democrats believing Al Gore had won.

The punchcard ballots were blamed for tens of thousands of uncounted votes. The final tally had George W. Bush winning the state by just 537 votes out of about 6 million cast.

``Clearly, if what they passed had been in place a year ago, Al Gore would be in the White House and George Bush would be back in Texas,'' Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe said Friday.

McAuliffe has noted that manual recounts were supported by Florida Republicans after being opposed by Bush aides during the recount debacle.

The new optical scanners read ballots on which voters fill in a bubble or complete an arrow. There will be no more recounts with elections workers squinting at chads.

``This is a milestone piece of legislation,'' said Hillsborough County elections supervisor Pam Iorio, president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. ``Out of a negative situation came very positive change.''