Nearly four years of accumulated animosities over the 2000 presidential-election train wreck come down to this: a Senate primary on Tuesday that will test whether Florida has figured out how to avoid a repeat debacle when voters choose a president Nov. 2.
The primary contest will take place amid suspicion and seething turmoil. At various times over the past few months, and at various places in the state, almost every aspect of the election process has been assailed: absentee ballots, electronic voting machines, registration lists, poll workers' training, auditing systems, recount provisions.
"The voters have very little reason to have confidence in the system in Florida," said Bobbie Brinegar, president of the Miami-Dade County League of Women Voters.
When Brinegar learned that thousands of Florida voters may also be registered in New York, she had one piece of advice: "Vote in New York."
Election officials have sought to reassure voters. Nonetheless, hundreds of poll monitors -- a preview of the thousands expected on Nov. 2 -- are being dispatched by voter rights groups to spread out through the state Tuesday to watch for errors and to provide assistance to voters.
Some groups, such as People for the American Way, is preparing teams of lawyers to file on-the-spot legal challenges. Sharon Lettman, a deputy national field director for the group, boasted recently about a "five-minute response time" to voter complaints. Labor unions are sending squads of lawyers, and the American Civil Liberties Union is handing out "voter empowerment cards."
"It's the most important barometer before the November election," said Howard Simon, director of the Florida ACLU.
Even the mundane simplicities of proper postage can twist into a complication in the prism of confusion that is Florida's election season. Days from the primary, Miami election officials started apologizing about their absentee ballots. Some postal clerks were telling voters they needed extra postage to mail the ballots, even though the instructions on the printed materials are explicit: "affix a 37 cent stamp."
It looked like another mix-up in a summer of monumental mix-ups. Activists complained to congressional representatives, who in turn complained to county managers. Election officials were quick to say they had made a mistake.
But, amid all the back-and-forth, no one bothered to check the facts. That is, not until Thursday, when an aide to Miami-Dade Elections Supervisor Constance Andrew Kaplan went to the post office and measured the ballot. Guess what? The ballot envelope, though larger than a standard business envelope, really does cost 37 cents to mail.
"It's like 'Who's on first here?' " Brinegar said.
The postage follies layered more anxiety -- activists still worry that votes will be lost because of misinformed postal clerks -- onto the harried run-up to the primary. Given the state's role in the 2000 presidential election, heavy scrutiny was to be expected. But the sheer volume of complaints has been astounding. So many activist groups have raised concerns that top election officials in the administration of Gov. Jeb Bush (R) have sometimes accused their critics of purposely trying to undermine voter confidence.
The governor's party might be accused of the same. Earlier this summer, the state Republican Party sent out a flier, featuring a photograph of President Bush, reminding voters that the new electronic voting machines do not have a paper audit trail and urging them to vote as absentees. The party later apologized.
But critics of the new machines -- purchased for tens of millions of dollars to replace the punch cards of 2000 that made "hanging chads" a household phrase -- got more fodder for their broadsides against the computerized systems. New machines in Miami-Dade County, for instance, have been plagued by problems collecting results used for audits. Skepticism about the performance of the electronic machines is often cited as a reason for record absentee-ballot requests.
Jeb Bush's appointed secretary of state fought attempts by the ACLU and other groups to reverse a decision prohibiting manual recounts of machine-generated vote totals. But a Tallahassee judge ruled in favor of the voter rights groups late Friday, clearing the way for possible recounts. A Florida appeals court has ruled against Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) in a lawsuit aimed at requiring electronic voting machines to produce backup paper records.
The preelection controversies have revisited many of the same issues and places that made the 2000 contest one of the most disputed in history. In Palm Beach, home of the infamous "butterfly ballot," the new rage is the "broken arrow" ballot. The ballot -- unveiled by Theresa Lepore, the elections supervisor responsible for the butterfly ballot -- asks voters to draw a line between the opposite ends of an arrow to indicate their choice. Critics say it is confusing, and they worry that voters will circle the arrows or mark them with an "X."
"They'll do some crazy things with them," Stephen Ansolabehere, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology election expert, said of the broken-arrow ballots.
In Miami-Dade County, the elections office recently said it lost all records of the October 2002 governor's race. Then, days later, it said they were merely misplaced. In the same county, Simon, the ACLU director, ran into trouble trying to cast his vote at an early-voting location in the Miami suburb where he lives. A poll worker, he said, initially refused to let him vote unless he could produce identification, a violation of a state law that allows voters without identification to sign an affidavit instead of showing an ID.
"This is an example of how not all of our problems are technology problems or bad and nefarious laws," he said.
The primary will be the first major election in the state since Florida was forced to abandon a list that it had used to purge dead people and felons from the voter rolls. Bush's administration had defended the use of the list. But the state discontinued it last month after news organizations found that the list included the names of 2,000 felons whose rights had been restored -- many of them African Americans, a demographic group that has tended to vote for Democrats in Florida -- and few Hispanics, a group that has tended to vote for Republicans in the state.
With all the criticism of election officials grabbing headlines, voters in at least one county will get to make a direct statement about the future of voting here. Among those running for reelection in Palm Beach County is a familiar name: Theresa Lepore.
Becker reported from Washington.