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Florida Ballot Blues Redux

September 12, 2002

Florida, Florida, Florida. Glitches in Tuesday's primary forced Gov. Jeb Bush to declare a state of emergency and keep polls open an extra two hours. Suddenly, long-repressed images of hanging chads popped into our heads, along with all the reasons it's imperative for Congress to pass the election reforms it has mired in partisan bickering since that last fiasco.

The disputed 2000 presidential election revealed how antiquated the American voting booth had become. Congress vowed to modernize it. Although individual states made changes--California voters approved counties' replacing punch cards with ATM-style voting machines--Congress has accomplished nothing.

Punch card equipment from the 1960s is what caused many of Florida's election problems in 2000. In May 2001, the Florida Legislature came up with $32 million to buy new machines, fund voter education and train poll workers. The touch-screen machines keep ballots from getting damaged or mis-marked. They also enable counties to issue ballots in foreign languages.

But as the spectacle of gubernatorial candidate and former U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno forced to wait outside a polling station to vote shows, it's vital that poll workers be properly trained to use the equipment. Voters also need guidance. Somehow, that didn't happen.

In Duval County, as The Times' John-Thor Dahlburg reported Wednesday, poll workers didn't boot up the machines until they realized that technicians weren't going to come to do it. Some retirees in South Florida had difficulty operating the machines and forgot to press a button that casts the ballot. Amid all the finger-pointing among Florida state officials, it seems clear that they failed to educate both voters and poll volunteers.

A systematic federal effort directed at improving voting would go a long way toward ending a voting system that made the U.S. an international laughingstock in the last presidential election.

In August, President Bush axed from a spending bill $400 million for new machines and educating voters and poll workers. An election reform bill spearheaded by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) that has passed the Senate contains a $3.5-billion grant program. It mandates a number of changes: a new federal agency with a four-member bipartisan commission to administer funds for machinery and training, statewide computerized voting systems and foreign-language accessibility for voters with limited English.

No bill is going to be perfect, given the fights between Democrats and Republicans over issues including what kind of identification some first-time voters should be required to produce. But the mess in Florida should remind Congress to resolve these disputes quickly.

Until then, Florida voters--like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day"--will be stuck on repeat.

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