Florida Adopts Sweeping Voting Reforms
By Daniel Seligson, Staff Writer
Florida lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a sweeping election reform bill Friday (5/4) that will address the voting ills that plagued last year's presidential contest in the state.
Sunshine State voters will never again use punch cards or butterfly ballots. Recount rules will be clear, implemented statewide. Registration lists will be maintained by the state using a real-time computer system allowing poll officials to check voter status from precincts. Voters will cast ballots on state-of-the-art machines that allow them to correct mistakes.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in short - his state's election system will become the envy of the nation six months after it was considered by many to be a worldwide joke.
Senate and House negotiators combined a number of pieces of legislation into Senate Bill 1118. The Senate passed the bill 38 to 2 while the House voted unanimously for the measure.
In a press conference held less than an hour after its passage, Bush, who pushed for the changes along with Secretary of State Katherine Harris, said Florida would become a leader among the states
"This measure will restore confidence in our election process and will serve as a model for the rest of the nation...Floridians have a voting system that will be the envy of the country," Bush said. "The citizens of Florida spoke loud and clear on this issue, and we have responded with this historic election reform legislation."
The Florida package includes:
- a ban on the use of a number of voting systems, including punch cards, lever machines, paper ballots and optical scan machines that count ballots at central offices, away from voters;
- a mandate for the use of "second-chance" voting machines that identify and reject over-votes, giving voters an opportunity to repair their ballots;
- an estimated $32 million in state funds to help localities purchase new machines and educate voters on their use;
- Uniform statewide ballots in general elections;
- $2 million for the creation of a statewide voter registration database;
- automatic restoration of voting rights for felons who completed their sentences upon approval of a constitutional amendment;
- the use of provisional ballots for voters whose eligibility cannot be determined on election day;
- voter education provisions;
- mandatory minimum training for poll workers;
- the elimination of run-off primaries.
Florida will become the third state in the nation to implement significant changes to election systems. Lawmakers in Georgia and Maryland adopted related bills last month. While those states will be looking to improve voting and registration systems, Florida lawmakers were the first to appropriate state money for the effort without any indication whether Congress would provide federal funds to help defray costs.
Georgia's election reform will begin with a pilot project using touch-screen voting systems and require a commission of experts to study the results. A uniform system will be neither funded nor on line until 2004.
Maryland has left funding issues to be determined by actions in Washington. Missouri's state Senate passed a comprehensive election reform bill Thursday (5/3). The House will have until the end of May to act on the legislation. Despite the high-profile nature of Florida's voting problems and its ensuing election reform bill, the Sunshine State might not spur legislatures around the country into similar actions on the more than 1,550 election reform measures still outstanding in state capitals.
Jennie Drage, a policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said Florida's impact on election reform was felt most acutely in November, as the country waited more than a month to find out who would be the next president. But, she said, that impact has waned since.
"What went on in Florida in November set the stage for states to look at their own election procedures. Most states are already involved in an in-depth process to do that," Drage said. "The fact that Florida passed election reform now probably won't cause other states to do the same."
"Some might look at the results of their studies and decide they do not need to do much at all. What this whole process has shown us is that there isn't a one-size-fits-all voting system in this country."