The Next Florida Could Be ... Florida

Outstanding lawsuits, allegations of fraud, uneven standards for voting. Will history repeat itself in the 2004 election?

| Thu Oct. 7, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

Plenty of states -- from New Mexico to Oregon to Nevada -- are contending with possible voter fraud, ballot challenges and hard questions about vote-counting. But the "next Florida" might just turn out to be, well, Florida.

Less than a month before election day, the state already had to deal with a lawsuit seeking to require paper trails for electronic voting machines, among its litany of potential problems. Now, as the Miami Herald reports, the Florida Supreme Court has agreed to hear a lawsuit filed by a group of unions that seeks to let voters cast provisional ballots anywhere in their county.

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Created in 2001 as a safeguard for citizens left off the voter rolls, provisional ballots are used by voters not listed on the rolls and only counted if the voter's omission is deemed erroneous. However, as the Herald explains:

"The caveat added by state legislators is that provisional ballots must be discarded if the voter didn't go to the right precinct. Lawyers for the unions say this violates Florida's Constitution, which requires only that voters cast their ballots in their home county. In a state that has been ravaged by four hurricanes, they also say that many precincts may be changed due to damages at polling places."

Ron Labasky of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections told the Herald letting voters cast such ballots anywhere could be a logistical nightmare, and would also open the door to voters in counties that use touch-screen machines instead requesting provisional ballots they can cast elsewhere.

Elsewhere, lame-duck Palm Beach County election supervisor Theresa LePore is also facing a lawsuit. Filed on public-records grounds, the goal is to obtain copies of voter registration applications rejected by LePore's office. The voter-registration group America's Families United had asked for the copies in July, and Tuesday's lawsuit by the Washington-based Advancement Project is following up on the request. As the Palm Beach Post reports, the point is to see why these applications were rejected, and whether applicants' failure to check a box declaring their citizenship is the reason. LePore responded that state law lets the public examine the applications but not make copies, because they can include the applicant's phone number, Social Security number and driver's license number.

The "citizenship box" is also the subject of a threatened legal action by the ACLU against Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood. Hood's office sent a letter to election supervisors last week, telling them to throw out applications where the box was not checked. The ACLU and others argue that box is unnecessary, as the application also requires a signed "oath" that the applicant is a citizen.

Meanwhile, in Leon County, election officials are looking into some suspicious, photocopied registration forms. As the Tallahassee Democrat reports:

"Leon County received about 1,500 photocopied voter registrations, mostly from Florida A&M University and nearby black neighborhoods. The overwhelming majority registered as Republicans, which made Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho suspicious because the FAMU precincts are lopsidedly Democratic.

"His staff has contacted 36 voters so far, all of whom said they signed color registration forms, not the black-and-gray photocopies forwarded to Sancho. And only one of the 36 said he intended to sign up with the GOP."

While the alleged fraud could have invalidated the applications, Sancho told the Associated Press he will put these voters on the rolls without party affiliation. But that's not the only example of fraud. Former St. Petersburg Mayor Charles Schuh told the AP he got a letter saying he was ineligible to vote because his application was late - only to learn later that someone else had turned in a form with his name, address and phone number:

"If I could find the guy I would make sure he was prosecuted for fraud and forgery. They could have stopped me from voting in the primary," Schuh, an attorney, said Tuesday. "That's wrong, dead wrong."

After the 2000 debacle, Florida officials talked a good game about reforming the voting system that rightly drew much criticism. But with all the outstanding lawsuits, fraud allegations and standards radically different from one county to the next, the state could be headed for a repeat without the paper trail for a recount.