April 15, 2006
Broader election flaws persist
With the announcement Thursday that Diebold Election Systems has agreed to sell 138 touch-screen voting machines to Leon County for $691,373, questions concerning Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho's ability to comply with federal law became all but moot.
Undeniably, the news was good - for Mr. Sancho, Leon County and voters here in the capital. Diebold's change of heart will effectively prevent punitive measures had this county not been able to ensure voting access for disabled citizens.
But the bad news is that this latest turn of events in no way addresses the overarching problem at the root of Mr. Sancho's headaches: state laws that put too much control of a constitutionally protected right in the hands of private companies and have weakened the vote verification process.
And there is no evidence whatever that state officials think that's a problem.
The state certifies three voting equipment companies to do business with all 67 county supervisors of elections. By law, they can do business only with certified companies. And, by law, supervisors cannot mix and match equipment from different vendors, even if it's technologically compatible.
Mr. Sancho is known among his supporters and critics as a passionate advocate. An expert in his field and an unreconstructed voting rights activist, Mr. Sancho's demeanor is off-putting to some. This might have been a factor in his previous failure to reach an agreement with any of the three companies.
Mr. Sancho, however, answers only to Leon County voters. They're his boss, and continue to re-elect him because his track record in the administration of elections is the envy of any election supervisor.
Even so, he must act within the law, even when the law is flawed. Ours is.
For one, it does not effectively regulate the three private companies that election officers are required to do business with. The state regulates private utilities; there's no reason there shouldn't also be more oversight of firms that play such an important role in democracy.
(Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist is investigating possible antitrust violations in connection with the three companies' earlier refusal to do business with Leon County. That probe is continuing despite Thursday's announcement, a spokesman for Mr. Crist said Friday.)
In addition, while several other states are requiring procedures to ensure high levels of public confidence in the election process, Florida is not. Recounts and audits, Mr. Sancho says, are virtually banned in the Sunshine State as a result of election laws written in the past five years. He describes the Legislature's failure in this regard as "nothing short of outrageous."
Finally, Mr. Sancho says that this episode has taught him that the Department of State, whose secretary is Florida's top elections official, can't be counted on to be an advocate for supervisors of elections.
The moral of the story, he says, is "buyer beware ... and the state will not intervene to assist individuals or counties who want to question the process. They are not going to be supported and, in fact, are left to their own devices to determine what's going on."
Leon County may breathe a sigh of relief. But Florida still has a bigger issue to consider.
Originally published April 15, 2006
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