Watch Florida – again

In November 2000, the flaws in Florida's election system were revealed in excruciating detail.

Tomorrow, the Sunshine State returns to the spotlight with a statewide primary. Regardless of the outcome, it will provide a preview of election reform nationwide. The nation should watch carefully. Florida is about two years ahead of most of the country.

In 2001, Florida authorized millions of dollars for new voting machines and put in place a statewide voter database, vote-counting standards, and provisional balloting, which allows people who believe they have been erroneously left off the rolls to vote and have their eligibility determined later.

Florida's new system has been hailed as a model for similar reform efforts in Congress and state legislatures across the country. What are the realities of Florida election reform so far?

New voting technology is not a total solution. For proof, look no further than Palm Beach County, home of the butterfly ballot, where elections supervisor Theresa LePore replaced the punch-card voting machines with new "ATM-style" touch screens. Now Ms. LePore again faces criticism because the touch-screen machines, some contend, can be manipulated to cast an incorrect vote.

Other localities are more concerned about accidents than inaccuracy. Pinellas County will have poll workers supervise the operation of the new voting machines, in an effort to avoid problems encountered in a recent local election. Some electronic cartridges containing votes were accidentally removed before they had been counted.

Cooperation (or the lack thereof) between state and local election officials can have a big impact. In Broward County, elections supervisor Miriam Oliphant is under fire following reports that her office mailed out thousands of incorrect voter cards and directed some voters to nonexistent polling places.

In response, Ms. Oliphant is blaming the state legislature for delays in redistricting, which hindered preparations for the Sept. 10 primary. For the time being, the state elections office is staying above the fray, because under state law local election supervisors such as Oliphant still have full authority to run their own offices.

Never underestimate the human element. Broward's Oliphant has also been in the headlines because of a sudden shortage of poll workers for Sept. 10. In August, the county election office tripled in size and switched to six-day work weeks in an effort to recruit enough workers to manage hundreds of polling places – and deal with new touch-screen machines.

More recently, Orange, Osceola, and Miami-Dade counties announced that they had recruited enough bilingual poll workers to avoid legal action by the US Justice Department in response to a similar shortage of bilingual poll workers in 2000.

The electoral process is now fair game for criticism from the media, candidates, and voters. Election officials in Florida and elsewhere are discovering that 2000 has sensitized everyone to the smallest details of the process. A preliminary design for the gubernatorial ballot was attacked because it directed voters to vote for "One Pair." The instructions meant a governor/lieutenant governor ticket, but in the post-butterfly-ballot era it was criticized as inviting double votes and was hastily revised.

The controversy over Palm Beach County's touch screens stems from a March mayoral election in Boca Raton. Defeated incumbent Emil Danciu claims he lost because of problems with the new technology.

The Florida primary will be monitored by a host of public interest groups. Whatever the outcome, Florida's poster-child status will likely remain intact as a promise – or warning – of what is to come across the country.

• Doug Chapin is director of electionline.org, a nonpartisan research effort supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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