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Florida legislators approve election reform package

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (CNN) -- Six months after a bitter dispute put Florida's election procedures under the glare of critical sunshine, the state Legislature gave final approval Friday to a sweeping package of reforms that should make hanging chads history in the state.

On the last day of the session, the Republican-dominated House and Senate passed the reform bill by wide margins. It now goes to Gov. Jeb Bush, who has said he would sign it.

The bill requires counties to abandon voting systems that use punch cards, mechanical levers or paper ballots. Instead, by 2002, counties must have in place optical scanners, which require voters fill in bubbles with a pencil. The pencil marks are then read by machines.

Counties also would be able to use more advanced technologies -- such as systems in which voters touch a computer screen to make their choices -- once such technologies are certified by the state, which could happen within a few months. Many of the state's county election supervisors say they would rather adopt the more advanced systems than spend money on optical scanners.

"Optical scanners are a lateral move. They present a similar set of problems to the current punch-card system," said Theresa Lepore, the elections supervisor in Palm Beach County, which was beset by problems during the 2000 vote.

The state will provide counties with $32 million to buy the new equipment and beef up voter education and training of poll workers.

The bill also requires a uniform ballot design statewide and extends the date by which counties must certify their election results by four days.

In the 2000 presidential election, some voters complained that they cast their ballots incorrectly because of the ballot design, particularly in Palm Beach County, where names in the presidential race appeared across from each other on a "butterfly" ballot.

Secretary of State Katherine Harris also sparked controversy when she insisted that counties adhere to a seven-day window for certifying results, which didn't leave enough time to complete hand recounts of ballots as requested by Democrats in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Counties will now have 11 days to certify results, but the new law makes it clear the deadline is mandatory -- something which had been open to dispute under existing election rules.

The bill also creates uniform statewide standards for assessing ballots during manual recounts. During the dispute over the 2000 presidential election, Republicans complained that elections officials in each of the state's 67 counties were setting their own standards, which differed from county to county.

Equal protection questions raised by the lack of a uniform statewide standard were cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in its December decision that finally brought the Florida election dispute to a conclusion, awarding the state's 25 electoral votes to GOP candidate George W. Bush.

Panel begins looking into Florida election reform (January 8, 2001)
Special report: Reviewing the vote: The Florida election case
CNN Election 2000

Online sunshine: The Florida Legislature
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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