One indicator of the dire state of electoral affairs in Florida is the fact that Theresa LePore, the election supervisor who designed the infamous butterfly ballot, will once again be on the job. It was Ms. LePore’s ballot that awarded the votes of thousands of elderly Jews in Palm Beach County to Pat Buchanan, arguably costing Al Gore the election. Given the multitude of other failures in the state’s voting system, that’s the good news. In the wake of the most scandalous election in U.S. history, which led to an unprecedented 36-day recount, most Americans believed that state and federal authorities would take steps to ensure that the country would never again go through such an ordeal. But in truth very few changes have been made, and those that have been implemented have raised new concerns. Yet nearly all of Flordia’s current troubles share a common denominator—they were decisions made or endorsed by Florida’s secretary of state and chief elections officer, Glenda Hood, who was handpicked by Gov. Jeb Bush in November 2002.
Gov. Bush’s own task force on the 2000 election recommended that the Legislature change county election supervisors from elected to nonpartisan positions. But the Legislature did not act on this recommendation, nor on the suggestion of election reform groups that the secretary of state also be selected by a nonpartisan commission, to ensure the necessary firewall between election officials and politicians.
There are excellent reasons for this recommendation. Following the contentious 2000 recount, e-mails on former Sec. of State Katherine Harris’ computer revealed that she had been in contact with Jeb Bush during the recount, contrary to both their claims. Miami Herald reporter Meg Laughlin discovered that e-mail messages sent to Jeb Bush from Harris had been deleted after the recount. Harris then had the operating system of her computer changed, a procedure that erased all its data. “What was odd about what she did,” said Mark Seibel, an editor at the Herald, “was that they installed an old operating system—not a new one—which makes you wonder why they did it.”
According to Gallup polls taken yearly since 2000, roughly 50 percent of Americans believe that the election of George W. Bush was either “won on a technicality” or “stolen.” Only 34 percent are “very confident” that the vote will be counted accurately in November.
But rather than allay those doubts by selecting an election supervisor of unimpeachable integrity, Gov. Bush seems to have found an equal to Katherine Harris in Glenda Hood, the former Republican mayor of Orlando. True, Hood is not juggling Harris’ other job—state chairman for George W. Bush’s campaign—but she has done little to assure Floridians that all the votes will be counted this time around.
For one, Hood and Jeb Bush have strongly endorsed the state’s Republican-controlled legislature’s new rule that outlaws manual recounts. This means that if any of the new optical-scan or touch-screen machines fail—as they did in the 2002 elections; and the recent March primaries; and just last week, when a backup system failed in a test run in Miami-Dade—there will be no recourse for counting votes. A coalition of election-reform groups has challenged this rule, and Rep. Robert Wexler of Palm Beach sued in federal court after a state appeals court dismissed the matter, ruling that while the right to vote is guaranteed, a perfect voting system is not.
Unlike the recent elections in Venezuela, where the new touch-screen voting machine provided every voter with a receipt, Floridians will have to take the word of Hood and Bush that their vote was counted.
To the embarrassment of Hood and Jeb Bush, even the state’s Republican Party has voiced its doubts about the electronic voting system. A flier disseminated last month by the party, featuring a picture of a smiling President Bush striking a thumbs-up sign, urged Republicans living in Miami-Dade County to vote by absentee ballot even if they will be home on Election Day. “Make sure your vote counts,” read the flier. “Order your absentee ballot today.” Now many Democrats also believe that the only safe vote is an absentee ballot vote.
But it is in the “low-tech area” of absentee ballots, as Miami Herald columnist Jim DeFede puts it, “that things get really funky.” Most critically, Hood and Gov. Bush have championed a new state law that abolishes Florida’s longtime requirement that absentee ballots be witnessed. While some other states, like California, do not require witnesses, no state has Florida’s history of institutional vote fraud.
Indeed, election fraud in Florida long precedes the 2000 debacle. In some counties it extends all the way back to the early days of Florida’s statehood, in 1845. Florida’s political culture derives from several different regions—the north, near Georgia, has more in common with the southern part of the United States; the south with Latin America—so election fraud tends to differ in the two regions. In the northern part of the state, for example, sheriffs have been known to let certain boxes of ballots—thought to be unfavorable to a particular politician—fall out of their squad cars and tumble into the Gulf of Mexico. In the south, notably Miami-Dade, a remarkable number of dead people have been known to rise up and make it to the polls. In 1998, Miami’s mayoral election of Xavier Suarez was overthrown for a host of irregularities, including the fact that a man named Manuel Yip, who had died four years earlier, had voted for Suarez. (In fact, it was the fourth time he had voted since his death in 1994.)
But most of the fraud that has dogged Florida centers on absentee ballots. In the mayoral election mentioned above, approximately 5,000 absentee ballots were found to be fraudulent. Some folks were unaware they had voted, some did not live in Miami, and (naturally, being Florida) some were dead. In addition, many of the ballots had the same witness. One Miami vegetable peddler had witnessed more than 70 absentee ballots. And some of the city’s poorest had been paid $10 to vote for Suarez. Without the state’s witness requirement, officials would never have been able to prove that the absentee ballots were bogus. Buying ballots is another current problem. In 1998, an election volunteer was caught selling ballots to undercover agents. And just last week, the Cuban exile columnist Max Lesnik reported that absentee ballots were being sold on Miami’s Calle Ocho for $25 apiece.
So, by doing away with the witness requirement, Hood, Gov. Bush, and the Florida Legislature have removed the only existing brake on absentee-voter fraud. It’s now open season in the Sunshine State.
There is also the matter of Florida’s large elderly population, which can be susceptible to manipulation. For example: For years, until he disappeared in 1982 after a drug-smuggling indictment, a Bay of Pigs veteran named Rafael Villaverde bused hundreds of Cuban exile ancianos in Miami-Dade from old-age homes to the polls so they could deliver the vote for the Republican Party.
Then there is the issue of the felon list. Florida is one of only seven states that does not automatically restore a felon’s voting rights after his or her release from prison (another of the ignored recommendations made by the commission Jeb Bush created). More than 52 percent of Florida’s felon population happens to be African-American, a demographic that voted Democratic in 2000 in unprecedented numbers. No matter whether one’s crime has been marijuana possession, check bouncing, or DUIs, anyone who has been convicted of a felony must endure an arduous obstacle course in order to have their voting rights restored. Most will have to face the state’s clemency board chaired by Gov. Bush and two other Republican officials. There is no appeal process. One veteran official with Florida’s Corrections Department, who asked for anonymity, noted that, “We have the president’s brother deciding whether people get to vote or not vote, which strikes me as a conflict of interest.”
How critical is the felon issue? Consider that in Florida in 2003, more than 54,000 felons were released or completed their parole; and the ACLU alleges that more than 600,000 former felons living in Florida had been improperly deprived of their right to vote by Katherine Harris’ policies in the 2000 election. (She and Gov. Bush instituted “purge lists” to ensure that no former felon voted without state approval.)
About the only thing that could restore confidence in Florida electoral procedures would be Hood’s immediate resignation; her successor should then be chosen by a bipartisan commission. And as Gov. Bush cannot possibly be an impartial observer in his brother’s quest for another term, he should recuse himself from every aspect involving the vote count in Florida. He also needs to flex his power with his famously compliant Legislature to repeal the new laws eliminating manual recounts and witnessed absentee ballots. In addition, all felons who have repaid their debt to society, following completion of their sentences, should have their voting rights restored.
If these changes are not made, Florida cannot conduct a credible election come November.