Another Florida Fiasco

Another Florida Fiasco

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The biggest story of the biggest primary election night of 2002 echoed the biggest story of the 2000 election: Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and the gang that couldn’t design a ballot straight blew it again. Just as the fierce indifference–and in some cases outright hostility–of Florida officials to the practical demands of democracy warped the Sunshine State’s 2000 presidential vote, so the “fixes” initiated by Bush, Harris and their legislative allies have resulted in another election without a result. As The Nation went to press, the contest between former Attorney General Janet Reno and wealthy lawyer Bill McBride for the Democratic nomination against Jeb Bush was too close to call and both campaigns were readying legal teams.

When Floridians went to the polls September 10 to nominate a Democratic challenger to Jeb Bush, they were supposed to encounter voter-friendly ballots, machinery and procedures. Never again would Florida voters be victimized as they were in 2000 by election systems that even the US Supreme Court, which awarded the presidency to George W. Bush, acknowledges violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause. That was the promise of Jeb Bush in May 2001, when he signed reform legislation and declared, “[We] have resolved the problem. Other states ought to look at this as a model….”

Bush boasted too soon. Instead of a fix, he and Harris–who quit her job to run for Congress–cut corners, failed to recognize potential technical problems and provided inadequate resources and information to local election officials. The byproduct was such chaos in at least fourteen counties on Primary Day 2002 that it sometimes made the 2000 presidential vote look like a smooth operation. Poll workers failed to show up in Broward County and didn’t know how to turn on vote-counting machines in Duval County. An optical scan machine in Union County registered votes only for Republican candidates. When new, ATM-style voting machines couldn’t be activated in Palm Beach County–home of the butterfly ballot–frustrated voters walked away. A polling place in Miami opened five hours late, after more than 500 voters were turned away. Across the state, voting machinery in dozens–perhaps hundreds–of precincts failed to operate properly. Problems were so widespread that Bush finally ordered voting sites to remain open for an additional two hours, but some precincts failed to get the message and shut their doors.

As in 2000, problems were reported most frequently in heavily Democratic districts and communities with large minority populations, like Miami’s Liberty City district. And, just as flawed voting systems and procedures made it virtually impossible to get a precise read on the results of the 2000 presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore in Florida, so chaos in the 2002 primary voting muddled the result of the Reno-McBride contest. Reno had to wait for more than an hour for the computerized voting machine at her Miami-area precinct to function. “What is it with Democrats having a hard time voting?” Jeb Bush mused, displaying the same quickness to blame the victims of the state’s incompetence as did Republicans in 2000.

The better question is: What is it with Jeb Bush and the Republicans who control the Florida legislature that they have such a hard time reforming a flawed election system that Cuban officials have offered to send democracy educators to the state? Florida isn’t about to accept that offer anytime soon, so it falls to Congress to intervene. Bush, Harris and many Congressional Republicans have argued that states are best prepared to set election standards. But Florida’s primary chaos makes it clear that it’s time for Congress to pass uniform national standards–as proposed by Congressman John Conyers, among others–to guarantee that all states treat voters equally and that resources are allocated fairly to low-income and minority precincts.

Congressional Democrats, who have been negotiating compromises on election reform legislation in a House-Senate conference committee, should recognize that soft standards will be abused by the likes of Jeb Bush. And Florida Democrats, who have struggled to mount a coherent gubernatorial challenge to Bush, ought finally to recognize that repairing the state’s damaged democracy can be a winning issue for their candidate–if they ever figure out his or her identity.

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