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THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Key States' Ballot Officials Feel Glare of Critical Eyes

Election czars, some of whom campaign on the side, are under the gun to avoid a Florida rerun.

October 22, 2004|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — In this humid Southern capital, Florida Secretary of State Glenda E. Hood is feeling the political heat. Lawsuits allege she has disenfranchised poor and minority voters. Critics claim that she's creating a partisan atmosphere.

The Republican appointee, whose predecessor, Katherine Harris, figured so prominently in the 2000 election debacle, is pretty fed up. And this year's election is still 12 days away.

"These people disappoint me," she said of her many critics. "I get to my wits' end with all the continual references to 2000. The last time I checked the calendar, it's 2004."

But memories of 2000 haven't faded in Florida -- or in other states where Hood's counterparts also are facing criticism. In the battlegrounds of Missouri and Ohio, Republican voting czars are under fire for allegedly using their offices to sway the election toward President Bush.

In Iowa and New Mexico, on the other hand, Democrats in charge of elections are accused of making decisions to boost the prospects of Sen. John F. Kerry.

The debate highlights the increasingly controversial role played by secretaries of state: interpreting state and federal voting laws and setting complex ground rules that tens of millions of American voters must follow to properly cast their ballots.

Hood, the first Florida secretary of state appointed by the governor instead of elected by voters, insists that she has set her political preferences aside. Unlike Harris, who served as co-chairwoman of Bush's 2000 Florida campaign, Hood is staying out of the GOP effort.

Others, though, straddle a blurry line between the administration of elections and partisanship.

Ohio's Republican Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell is co-chairing the president's reelection efforts there, while Republicans Dean Heller of Nevada and Jan Brewer of Arizona are actively campaigning on Bush's behalf while fulfilling voting duties as secretary of state. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia's Democratic secretary of state, has pitched in to help Kerry, even while running for governor.

GOP secretaries of state nationwide have allegedly blocked efforts to open early polling in minority areas, where voters are likely to support Kerry. Missouri Secretary of State Matt Blunt went to court this summer to defeat such moves.

Some election experts call for bipartisan federal oversight of the voting process, pointing to GOP election officials, including Hood, who are requiring voters to check off boxes on a registration form when asked about citizenship, or insisting they cast provisional ballots in the appropriate precinct.

Others say many of this year's battles amount to healthy clashes of interpretation of state and federal voting laws.

"Often, accusations of partisan politics are more disagreement about interpretation over the law than actual naked partisan vote grabs," said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a nonpartisan clearinghouse of election reform information. "They're legal arguments masquerading as partisan fights."

But voter watchdogs are distrustful and have called for a nonpartisan group to monitor elections nationwide.

"I'm concerned about things I'm seeing, especially in Florida," said Curtis Gans, who heads the nonprofit Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "We need federal standards that can be applied nationwide, with an enforcement agency to follow up on problem states."

In Florida, liberal activists fear a close race could again be marred by flawed recounts and discounted ballots.

Local election officials have balked at Hood's rule that new registrations be discarded if applicants failed to check the appropriate box affirming their citizenship, even if they signed an oath. Some have chosen to ignore the directive, and state Democrats sued in federal court.

"We have in Florida today the specter of Katherine Harrises past," said Alma Gonzalez, special counsel to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which sued Hood's office over several issues, including the filing of provisional ballots.

"We have to sue her, wrestle her to the ground, pin the Constitution on her before she respects voters' rights."

Critics say Harris helped swing the 2000 election by resisting manual recounts in many counties that could have swung the vote to Democrat Al Gore. Instead, Bush won by 537 votes.

And though Hood had nothing to do with the debacle, she can't seem to shake the comparisons to her predecessor. Voting activists question not only her alleged partisan politics, but even her grip on reality in dealing with Florida's looming elections.

Hood, a onetime mayor of Orlando, remains defiant. She refers to voting activists as political mischief-makers trying to undermine a fragile voter confidence in the election process.

"We want the light to shine on Florida and show the nation we've made changes. Yet people are trying their dead level best to make people think we're back in 2000," she said. "That's unfair."

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