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Florida Officials Hope Reforms Will Help Avoid Major Voting Problems in Upcoming Election - 2004-07-24


In the last U.S. Presidential election four years ago there were major voting problems in the southern U.S. state of Florida. A month-long recount, discarded ballots and a subsequent Supreme Court ruling gave President George W. Bush of the Republican Party a narrow election victory over his Democratic Party challenger Al Gore. Election officials in Florida are hoping sweeping changes to voting laws and new technology will prevent the election troubles of the past.

Voters in Florida are hoping new touch screen voting machines will prevent the problems that threw the 2000 Presidential contest into chaos.

Theresa LePore, Palm Beach County Florida's Election Supervisor, remembers all too well the troubles of four years ago.

"We kind of assumed that everybody knew how to use the punch card voting equipment and we assumed that everybody knew what they were suppose to do come election day so we were kind of lax on the education," she recalls.

In 2000, the national election was decided in Florida where President Bush narrowly won by just 537 votes. But thousands of votes had to be discarded because of voter error, poorly designed ballots and other problems. In a 36-day recount, election workers had to read the holes or partial holes in punchcard ballots to try to determine for whom the person meant to vote. It was a process that angered many people and divided the nation. Palm Beach resident Eddie Brannon says some of his friends are still angry about what happened.

Brannon: "It was just a raw deal because some of their votes did not get counted and it just was a raw deal."

Simkins: "Do you think people feel this time around they might get a little better chance?"

Brannon: "Well, I hope so. I think they kind of feel like they will."

State election officials say they are optimistic voting will go smoothly this time. Florida spent more than $125 million on new touch screen and optical scan voting machines. Lawmakers also made sweeping changes to elections laws, banning manual recounts and tightening voter eligibility.

Ms. LePore says voter education is another cornerstone of efforts to prepare people for the November election.

"You learn from your mistakes and you learn from the past and not to repeat those which is why we have a very aggressive voter education campaign and that will continue forever," she says.

Florida voter Diane Zinnanti is happy with the new changes.

Zinnanti: "We [Florida] will not be the center of attention this time the way we were last time. I think it is going to be much easier."

Simkins:"Why do you think that?"

Zinnanti: "Because they sent us this big form to read it carefully beforehand. We have got our little cards. I do not think it is going to be a problem and besides we have got a lot of smart people here and we have been unjustly accused of being stupid. "

Despite the changes, voters have mixed feelings about the new voting machines, where they indicate their choice by touching the appropriate part of the computer screen.

John Tamborrino: "I appreciate something like this. We have to catch up with everything else; we are in the computer age so we have to catch up. So it is a good way to start. "

Hanner Selma: "It took a long time before I could check off the ballot before the sign came. I need help."

Simkins: "Do you like this better than the paper ballot?"

Hanner Selma: "No, I prefer the other way but I could probably get use to it."

But Florida is one of several states where people are questioning the touch screen voting technology. There have also been legal challenges to some of the new procedures including the ban on manual recounts for touch screen machines. Palm Beach Election Supervisor Lepore says manual recounts are unnecessary.

"In recounts with the touch screen machines you can print out a ballot image or a ballot record of what every voter did throughout the day so you do have an audit trail," she adds. "The purpose of the machines is not to have the canvassing board have to determine voter intent, which was one of the big issues in the year 2000."

Political analysts say perhaps the biggest challenge facing Florida's election officials is restoring voter confidence in the process and assuring them that their votes will be accurately counted this November 2.

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