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Could election lightning strike twice in Florida?

Democrats say they find problems, little progress since 2000

By Greg Botelho

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WEST PALM BEACH, Florida (CNN) -- Despite intensive public scrutiny and extensive reforms, Democratic criticisms heard in 2000 are echoing again in Florida, setting up another possibly bitter election, and perhaps another post-election battle.

Democrats have decried ineffective voting machines, discrimination against African-American voters and boosting Ralph Nader as a way of hurting Democrats -- all stemming from, they say, Republicans' attempts to manipulate elections in their favor.

"I think a lot has changed since 2000, and it's changed for the worse," said Scott Maddox, chair of the Florida Democratic Party. "The bottom line: We can't let it be close, because if they can cheat, they will."

Republicans, who control Florida's governor and secretary of state offices (as they did in 2000), call such accusations groundless and foresee a fair, well-run election November 2.

"There are a lot of people here who know how to run an election properly," said Mindy Tucker Fletcher, a senior adviser to Florida's Republican Party. "But you only hear about the negatives."

Four years ago, the Sunshine State was ground zero for political and legal wrangling in a historic election dispute. The showdown ended with a Supreme Court ruling halting ballot recounts, giving George W. Bush a state win by 537 votes and a 271-267 Electoral College majority.

With two more electoral votes, 27, Florida arguably carries even more importance this year than in 2000.

But political experts warn against reading too much into the again sharp political rhetoric, or expecting a repeat of the razor-close, controversy-ridden 2000 election.

"Every state was decisive in 2000, so let's not just focus on Florida," said Stephen Craig, a University of Florida political sciences professor. "Let's not assume that Florida is the end of the rainbow."

Focus on Florida

The 2000 election in Florida introduced terms like "hanging chads" and "butterfly ballot" into the American vernacular, and introduced the world to Palm Beach County.

County election officials voided 19,120 ballots because they were double-punched, while conservative candidate Pat Buchanan scored a surprisingly high 3,000 votes in the heavily Democratic area -- all, Democrats said, because of a confusing ballot design.

A Palm Beach Post survey of ballots concluded that, if voters' true intentions were taken into account, Democratic candidate Al Gore would have won Florida, and become the nation's 43rd president. Top Republicans dismissed the report, saying it was impossible to accurately identify voter intentions based only on discarded, improperly filled out ballots.

Palm Beach County -- and the rest of Florida -- has undergone extensive election reform in the last four years. Chief among them, state officials decertified punch-card machines that left votes hanging in 2000, using optical scan or touch-screen voting machines instead.

"Since the 2000 election, Florida has led the nation in election reform," said Jenny Nash, press secretary for Secretary of State Glenda Hood. "We have one of the most rigorous [voter machine] certification processes in the nation."

Elections officials have also stepped up voter education efforts.

"They teach you, step by step," said Katherine Madigan, commending such efforts in Palm Beach County. "They're talking about how to do it, they even give you a fake ballot."

Theresa LePore, Palm Beach County's supervisor of elections, says she realizes there will always be critics, just as there will always be errors, simply because humans are involved.

"Our staff knows we're being held to a much higher standard, and we're doing everything we can to make sure that nothing happens," said LePore, designer of the "butterfly ballot." "But we're human, sometimes mistakes are made."

Dems: GOP manipulating elections

Leading Democrats express doubts a fair presidential election can be held in Florida, given the actions of Republicans in power.

"A repetition of the problems of 2000 now seems likely," said former President Jimmy Carter in a Washington Post guest editorial. "Some of the state's leading officials hold strong political biases that prevent necessary reforms."

"With reforms unlikely at this late stage of the election, perhaps the only recourse will be to focus maximum public scrutiny on the suspicious process in Florida."

Maddox, the state Democratic Party chair, in sentiments voiced by Carter and other Democrats, cites several examples of what he calls the GOP's "blatant partisanship to use the Elections Division to their advantage."

Republicans, he says, engineered a so-called "felons' list" that tried to disqualify 22,000 African-Americans (likely Democrats) and only 61 Hispanics (likely Republicans). He also accuses Republicans of touting new voting machines' precision while encouraging their supporters to vote absentee. GOP voters and lawyers, he adds, have supported Nader (in his successful quest to get on Florida's ballot) in a bid to take votes away from John Kerry.

"Florida voting officials have proved to be highly partisan, brazenly violating a basic need for an unbiased and universally trusted authority to manage all elements of the electoral process," wrote Carter. "[Gov.] Jeb Bush, naturally a strong supporter of his brother, has taken no steps to correct these departures from principles of fair and equal treatment."

Florida election officials strongly refute such claims, pointing to reforms aimed at making elections just, simple and truly democratic. Hundreds of "successful" elections have been held across the state since 2000, said Nash, Hood's press secretary. (Hurricanes complicate election projections)

Secretary Hood has conducted her job in a nonpartisan manner," said Nash, rebutting allegations that Republican Party political aims guide Hood's actions. "We expect people will be watching Florida very closely, and we're very proud of what we've done."

As to Carter's claims, Nash said, "We were disappointed because former President Carter did not contact Secretary Hood to get updated and accurate information." Nash invited him to meet Hood in Tallahassee, Florida, to hear about "the progress that has been made."

"What will be our downfall is the elected officials who keep looking for problems," said LePore of the intense scrutiny. "Every little mistake is blown out of proportion. ... Good thing my hair is blond, so you can't see the gray."

Turnout seen as key

So could election lightning strike twice in Florida? Neither party is taking any chances.

Republicans have stepped up their voter registration efforts considerably, their volunteer base rising from 20,000 in 2000 to 70,000 this year, according to Fletcher.

Maddox likewise touted the Democrats' grassroots efforts and promised a strong turnout.

A New York Times analysis gave Democrats an edge: New voter registrations in highly Democratic areas rose 60 percent between January 1 and July 31, 2004 (compared to the same period in 2000), with a 12 percent jump in heavily Republican areas.

While Democrats contend the 2000 elections energized their ranks, that sentiment did not play out in the 2002 gubernatorial election -- in which, after polls predicted an even race, Jeb Bush decisively defeated Democratic challenger Bill McBride.

"Democrats realized the importance of mobilization [after 2000]," said Craig. "But they did not do the grassroots that might have made the difference in 2002. We'll see whether or not they learn from that."

Statistically, a second straight presidential election in Florida decided by a few hundred votes is highly unlikely. But problems still exist, said Craig, meaning elections officials have plenty of work to do through November 2.

"We're not to the point where everybody who wants to vote can vote, and everyone who can vote has their vote properly conducted," said Craig. "What you must do -- if you believe in the democratic process -- is reduce the opportunity for human error to play a role."

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