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Another Florida Fiasco

Amid mounting signs of another Florida fiasco looming over the November election, there was a stark symbolism — probably unintended, but palpable nonetheless — in the invitation extended this month to the respected Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to send international teams of election observers to watch America’s polling places. In effect, American democracy is under a microscope.

The 55-nation OSCE, formed in the 1970s to monitor the so-called Helsinki Accords on human rights, has a long record of observing and monitoring elections, mostly in Third World trouble spots. The State Department, which invited the observers, is downplaying their significance, saying they are simply part of a new program that helps OSCE members learn from one another’s experiences. Despite the demurral, the invitation has sparked furious objections from the right, which protests that inviting the observers insults American democracy and puts us on a par with failed Third World nations.

Given the growing scandal in Florida, that sounds about right.

Florida has been under pressure since the hanging-chad furor of 2000 to come up with a voting system that ensures fairness — and equally important, is seen to be fair. Instead, the state’s government, under the leadership of Gov. Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, has presided over a series of decisions that make a new disaster all but certain.

Just weeks ago, the state’s Division of Elections was publicly forced to scrap an expensive audit intended to purge convicted felons from the voter rolls, after the audit was shown to have overcounted blacks, most of whom vote Democratic, while completely overlooking Hispanics, who tend in Florida to vote Republican.

The newest scandal involves a bungled effort to fix the flawed voting technology that created the recount crisis of 2000. Fifteen of the state’s 67 counties, including several of the most populous, have moved to a system of touch-screen computer voting, believing they were less prone to error. That confidence now appears unfounded. Unfortunately, a state appeals court this week rejected a bid to fix them.

A review of the machines’ performance in the 2002 gubernatorial election, conducted by the state’s own Division of Elections, found that the touch-screen computers were more than twice as likely as the older, optical-scanning devices to record “undervotes,” showing a blank space where the voter’s choice was to have appeared. A more recent study of a local election by the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel found an even higher rate of undervotes.

More alarming still, the new computers have no means of retaining permanent records of the votes cast. That makes a recount impossible in the case of a close vote.

In response to the failures, a growing chorus of Democrats — and some Republicans — is demanding that Florida provide some reliable backup. Most critics want the state to require that counties using the touch-screen computers buy printers to generate a paper record of votes cast. Inexplicably, the state is rejecting the demand. Governor Bush says he has “every faith and confidence” in the machines’ reliability. His secretary of state, Glenda Hood, who oversees elections, implausibly suggests that the high rate of undervotes in the counties using touch-screen voting simply reflects the voters’ choice not to choose.

Hopes for reform were dealt a serious blow this week when a three-judge appeals court in West Palm Beach rejected a suit by Rep. Robert Wexler demanding that the state require a printed paper trail. The judges, all of them Republican appointees, wrote that the voters were not guaranteed “a perfect voting system.”

The judges acknowledged that state law requires a recount in any vote closer than one-quarter of a percent. However, they said, the law gives the secretary of state full discretion in setting the voting rules. If Wexler has a complaint, they said, he should take it to the secretary of state.

What’s most disturbing about the dispute is its circular nature, and the seeming imperviousness of Governor Bush and his administration to the mounting outrage around the nation. Despite lingering doubts about the accuracy of the 2000 presidential vote count — in which President Bush won Florida’s 25 electoral votes, and the White House, on a 527-vote margin — Governor Bush refuses to take steps to ensure a more reliable count this time. Ignoring its own law on recounts, the state permits voting machines that will make a recount impossible. Complaints about unfairness are referred to the secretary of state, an appointee and political ally of Governor Bush.

Democrats are understandably suspicious that the governor is preparing to tweak the results in case of a close vote and so deliver the state to his brother. That may be too cynical a reading of the process. Nonetheless, the perceptions of unfairness should alarm all Americans, left and right alike. For four years America has suffered from divisions that taint our political system and weaken us on the world stage. Whoever wins the election in November should be able to enter the White House with a clear, uncontested mandate to govern.

The entry of the OSCE into the dispute only accentuates the perception that our system is flawed. If America does not want to be treated like a Third World nation, it should not conduct itself as one. Right now, the ball is in Governor Bush’s court.

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