Florida Again Faces Disputes Over Elections
Recounts, Missing Records Debated
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2004; Page A03
MIAMI, July 28 -- Anything sound familiar here?
Voting rights lawyers are in Tallahassee, one of the epicenters of the 2000 presidential election convulsions, arguing about recounts. Florida civil rights advocates are seething about restoring the voting rights of felons. And, in Miami, elections officials now find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to explain why they've lost much of their audit records from the last big statewide election.
"We are no safer than we were in 2000," said Lida Rodriguez-Tasseff, chairman of the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition, a voting-rights group. "We may have even bigger problems that we don't even know about."
Rodriguez-Tasseff's organization unearthed the latest in an increasingly lengthy string of embarrassments for the Florida elections system when it filed a public-records request this month with the Miami-Dade County elections office asking for the audits of votes in the 2002 governor's election. The records were supposed to have been collected by the county's new $25 million electronic voting network. The answer the group received has made voter advocates queasy about how the system will perform in the November presidential election: The records were gone.
The group was told that two computer crashes -- the first in May last year and the second in November -- erased the records of the 2002 primary and general elections. The group's request, first reported in the New York Times, also revealed that the lack of a backup system meant that the records could not be recovered.
Seth Kaplan, a spokesman for the Miami elections office, said on Wednesday that a decision against making a public announcement at the time of the crashes was made because elections officials believed the data loss was merely a record-keeping issue and did not affect the integrity of the elections -- a contention disputed by voter advocates who say statewide audits are critical for assessing the performance of the machines.
"There's always a fine line between speaking out about things that are truly necessary to speak about and not unnecessarily alarming the public," Kaplan said.
Kaplan said technicians consulted with the system's manufacturer -- Elections, Systems & Software, one of the nation's largest electronic voting machine firms -- on Wednesday and now believe they may have found the records of the 2002 general election and some of the records of the primary.
Kaplan said he could not provide the exact dates of the computer crashes. Rodriquez-Tasseff questioned whether the timing of the crashes -- shortly after the elections -- may have been part of an effort to conceal problems with the voting machines.
The revelations about lost records in Miami compounded a sense of anxiety among voters' rights groups, some of which are calling for congressional and Justice Department investigations of Florida's system.
"It is becoming more and more clear every day -- one obstacle after another, one mismanagement after another -- that Florida's secretary of state's office cannot manage its election," said Sharon Lettman, deputy national field director of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group based in Washington.
Florida elections officials responded to the data loss in Miami with criticism of the critics. "I think it is unfair for the different groups to try to erode voter confidence," said Alia Faraj, a spokeswoman for Florida Secretary of State Glenda E. Hood.
The rift between the administration of Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and voters' rights groups has grown as the Aug. 31 U.S. Senate primary approaches. Advocacy groups -- including the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause and People for the American Way -- are asking a Tallahassee judge to step in before the primary and override Bush's decision not to allow manual recounts in the 15 Florida counties that have touch-screen voting machines.
Florida ACLU Executive Director Howard Simon said there is no way of knowing how the machines would perform in a close election if recounts are not allowed.
George Waas, an attorney for the secretary of state's office, said the machines are immune from the "under-votes and over-votes" that occurred in previous elections when punch-card ballots were used. He called the concerns raised by Simon and others "a parade of horribles."
"It's what we call 'the sky is falling' syndrome," Waas said. "The sky is not falling."
Looming over the manual recount confrontations is the residue of months of bitterness over the state's flawed list of felons purged from the voting rolls, which Bush was pressured into dropping after revelations that it contained the names of thousands of felons -- including a high percentage of African Americans -- whose voting rights had been restored. While the state list will no longer be used, the ACLU and others are still pressing for reforms at the local level, where they believe many felons have not been given enough information about how to regain voting privileges.
"It is a real atrocity that Florida's elected officials are not going out of their way to reassure voters and all of America that Florida has its act together," Lettman said. "Democracy is in question in the state of Florida."
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