TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Six months after Florida plunged the presidential race into chaos, lawmakers approved a sweeping election overhaul Friday that will banish the hanging chads and butterfly ballots that made the state a laughingstock.
The $32 million measure now goes to Gov. Jeb Bush, who is expected to sign it as early as next week.
“We took advantage of the scrutiny the state got and rather than trying to relive the past, we’ve been focusing on making sure 2002 looks a lot different,” Bush said.
Since the November recount that put Bush’s older brother in the White House, Florida has passed the most significant election reform package in the country.
The plan, approved 120-0 by the House and 38-2 by the Senate, will establish uniform guidelines for recounts in close elections. It will also eliminate mechanical lever voting and punchcard and hand-counted paper ballots.
Instead, every precinct will have optical-scan ballot systems for the 2002 elections. The plan earmarks $24 million for counties to buy the equipment.
“In one word, hooray!” said Deanie Lowe, the Volusia County elections supervisor. “I am just thrilled to death over what they’ve accomplished.”
The legislation requires a machine recount if the margin of victory in any race is half a percent or less and a manual recount of the overvotes and undervotes – ballots where voting machines pick up multiple choices or no clear choice – if the margin is one-quarter of 1 percent or less.
The secretary of state must also draft rules on how to read ambiguous ballots. During last fall’s recounts, counties used differing standards, creating disputes over hanging, pregnant and dimpled chads.
Also, provisional ballots will be given to people who are not on voter rolls but say they are eligible to vote. Elections officials will later determine if the ballots are valid. Last fall, some voters, many of them black, complained they were wrongly denied the right to vote.
“Florida led the country into a disastrous election morass, but now it’s showing the way out of the morass,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor who is conducting a nationwide elections reform study.
“It’s much less likely Florida will ever be in that embarrassing position again. This could serve as model legislation for other states.”
In Georgia, lawmakers have passed a bill that requires a statewide electronic voting system in place by 2004, but they did not include money to pay for it. Maryland lawmakers have voted to require all counties to use a uniform voting system, possibly as early as next year.
Florida’s governor was eager to change the state’s maligned election system after recounts delayed his brother’s election for 36 days and left many Democrats believing Al Gore had won.
The punchcard ballots were blamed for tens of thousands of uncounted votes. The final tally had George W. Bush winning the state by just 537 votes out of about 6 million cast.
“Clearly, if what they passed had been in place a year ago, Al Gore would be in the White House and George Bush would be back in Texas,” Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe said Friday.
McAuliffe has noted that manual recounts were supported by Florida Republicans after being opposed by Bush aides during the recount debacle.
The new optical scanners read ballots on which voters fill in a bubble or complete an arrow. There will be no more recounts with elections workers squinting at chads.
“This is a milestone piece of legislation,” said Hillsborough County elections supervisor Pam Iorio, president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. “Out of a negative situation came very positive change.”
Palm Beach County’s Theresa LePore, a Democrat vilified by both parties for designing the butterfly ballot blamed for confusing voters, said she was disappointed lawmakers didn’t make the supervisor of elections a nonpartisan position.
Her canvassing board’s chairman, Judge Charles Burton, praised the plan and said every state should have uniform standards for manual recounts.
“You should not leave it up to various boards when you’re making a partisan decision,” he said during a panel discussion on election reform in Boston. “We were counting dings, spit marks and drool marks.”
On the Net:
Florida Legislature: http://www.leg.state.fl.us/Welcome/index.cfm