MIAMI, Oct. 29 -- President Bush, borrowing a bit of biblically styled phrasing, calls Florida's governor "Brother Jeb." The brothers -- Jeb, the younger one, and George W. -- have been everywhere in Florida together the past few months. They have handed out bottled water in hurricane-battered towns and roused crowds side-by-side at campaign rallies.
Jeb Bush's political powers, his eloquence and his gifts as a strategist are considered major assets to his brother's campaign, both by the governor's detractors and by his fans. One longtime Florida Democratic operative says he is "as smart as Karl Rove," the president's much-praised strategist. But it is Jeb Bush's influence over the electoral process in this crucial state that can inspire awe and rage.
This year, he has far more say over the way the presidential election in Florida will be conducted than he did in 2000. He has been smack in the middle of a gaggle of election controversies over the past year: from flawed voter lists and manual recount battles to tussles over electronic voting machines. This fact has made the governor the object of intense criticism from voter-advocacy groups, which have accused him of manipulating the process through Florida Secretary of State Glenda E. Hood, his appointee -- a charge that he has denied.
"He has a penchant for mythmaking about the state of the electoral process in Florida, rather than telling the truth," said Bobbie Brinegar, president of the Miami-Dade County League of Women Voters. "It's really important to eliminate the partisan administration of the electoral process in Florida."
But, as it turns out, the powers that Jeb Bush has over the electoral process are exactly what Florida asked for. Florida used to elect its secretaries of state -- Katherine Harris was the last of the elected secretaries. Harris was one of the central figures in the 2000 election tempest, using her authority to limit the time counties had to recount ballots and overseeing the initial decisions over the eligibility of voters before the election. In 1998, when Jeb Bush won his first term as governor, the state also approved a raft of constitutional amendments, including one that changed the job of secretary of state from an elected to an appointed position effective in 2003, giving the governor a huge role in the election process.
Only five of the 39 secretaries of the state who oversee elections are appointed. The change to an appointed position in Florida had bipartisan support, and many of the state's big newspapers endorsed it, as did groups, such as the League of Women Voters, that have since been critical of Bush's role in elections.
"It was a mistake," said Howard Simon, president of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "We've gone from bad to worse."
At times, the 2004 election has shaped up as a war between Jeb Bush and the election reform groups as much as it has been a war between the president and John F. Kerry. Bush and Hood refused requests to audit voting machines during the Aug. 31 primary. They also won court cases against groups that wanted to require paper trails for electronic voting machines and to allow manual recounts of electronically cast votes.
The governor and the secretary of state have sparred along the way with the ACLU, the League of Women Voters and, most recently, with former president Jimmy Carter. Bush dropped any semblance of the usual diplomatic niceties extended to former presidents when he referred to Carter, a Democrat, as "that guy" in a sharp retort after Carter wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post that questioned whether Florida could hold a fair election and that said Jeb Bush "has taken no steps to correct" election problems that had disenfranchised African Americans.
"That's just bogus," Bush told the Miami Herald. "That guy doesn't have a clue what's going on in Florida."
Bush and Hood, a former Orlando mayor who campaigned for George Bush in 2000, have also accused Democrats of concocting election controversies as part of an orchestrated effort to stir their base. About a dozen lawsuits have already been filed against Hood's office, challenging various aspects of the electoral process. "It's unfortunate that people are trying to undermine voter confidence," said Jacob Dipietre, Jeb Bush's spokesman.
Lew Oliver, chairman of the Republican Party in Orange County, a key swing area that includes Orlando, calls criticisms of Bush's role in the electoral process "a seriously bum rap."
"As usual," Oliver said, "the Democrats crawl around telling lies like Joseph Goebbels."
Bush's scrap over Florida's flawed felon voter list has been the most enduring of his string of election battles. The state is required by law to remove felons from rolls if their voting rights have not been restored. Bush initially defended the use of the list. But he later discontinued its use after several newspapers reported that the list disproportionately excluded African Americans, who tend to vote for Democrats, from voter rolls and tended not to exclude Hispanics, many of whom vote for Republicans.
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune recently reported that Bush received e-mail from a computer expert at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement advising him to "pull the plug" on the error-plagued list but that he ignored the warning. Bush, in a rare national news media interview, said on ABC News's "This Week" that the report was "absolutely false." In the same interview, he addressed his own political future. He has no plans, he said, to try in 2008 to become the third Bush in the White House.
Staff writer Jo Becker in Washington contributed to this report.