May 1, 2007
BY LESLEY CLARK AND GARY FINEOUT
U.S. election officials gave Florida the go-ahead Tuesday to use federal money to pay for voting machines with a paper trail, easing the way for the state Legislature to scrap touch-screen machines in Miami-Dade, Broward and 13 other counties.
The agreement capped a two-hour meeting before the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which rejected the bid to tap one federal pot, then told the state how to get the $28 million it asked for anyway: Use the federal funds to reimburse itself for the millions Florida spent on new voting machines after the ''hanging chads and butterfly ballots'' debacle of the 2000 presidential election.
The initial rejection prompted an impassioned plea from Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who told the commission that without federal money, the state would be unable to move to paper ballots in time for the 2008 presidential election.
''Florida has been through the wringer and back,'' Browning, a former Pasco County elections supervisor, told the commission when it appeared the federal dollars would not be available. ``Florida wants to move on . . . Florida is election-weary.''
Browning said that although he believes the electronic ATM-style machines are accurate, ``there's a perception out there that you can't trust touch-screen voting machines.''
''For Florida, this perception has become reality in large part, and we want to address those concerns,'' he said. He said most counties have reported no problems with touch-screen voting, but added, ''let's not talk about Sarasota'' -- where 18,000 ballots recorded no vote in last year's congressional race and a House task force meets Wednesday to decide whether to investigate.
Commission members said they were reluctant to let the state use unspent federal dollars earmarked for purchasing voting machines under the federal Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, because the federal government had already picked up part of the tab when the state scrapped its punch-card machines.
But Julie Hodgkins, general counsel for the commission, said Florida and its counties never reimbursed themselves for the full costs when they scrapped punch-card voting machines in the wake of the 2000 presidential election -- before HAVA was even implemented. She said that money can be used for the new machines.
The decision by federal authorities should remove one of the final obstacles to Florida removing the touch-screen machines in the 15 counties that use them, and replace them with optical-scan machines that rely on paper ballots filled out by voters.
Gov. Charlie Crist, who asked the Legislature to switch the state to paper ballots, had initially planned to use state money for the new machines, but his plan was rejected by House Republicans. Sen. Lee Constantine, an Altamonte Springs Republican and sponsor of the bill that mandates new voting machines, said Tuesday's decision should clear the way for lawmakers to pass the voting bill by the time the session ends Friday.
''Now they have no excuses,'' Constantine said. ``We always felt very strongly we could use the [federal] money.''
Rep. David Rivera, one of the top Republicans in the House, said the main problem that remains is that the bill the Senate has already passed authorizing the new machines is included in a 73-page bill that contains dozens of other election changes. The bill, for example, moves Florida's presidential primary up to Jan. 29.
Browning told the commission that there is some opposition among county elections supervisors who are concerned about getting new machines online in time for the 2008 presidential election. Crist wants paper ballots in use for the primary that fall, Browning said.
''I won't say they're against it,'' Browning told the commission. ``They're hopeful to have more time to do it.''
Browning told the commission he took the job with one primary goal: ``to make elections in Florida a nonevent.''
''We in Florida have to get away from defending touch-screen voting machines and get back to running elections,'' he said.
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