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Florida voting issues raise fears of 2000-like debacle

  • Story Highlights
  • Palm Beach County, Florida, has changed voting systems twice in past eight years
  • County GOP chairman says "no confidence" election will go off without problems
  • 2000 recount drama in Florida led to changes in election procedures in 40+ states
  • Indiana official says it's people, not machines, that make elections run smoothly
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By John King
CNN Chief National Correspondent
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WEST PALM BEACH, Florida (CNN) -- To pick up the morning paper and see the word "recount" in a headline stirs an ominous case of déjà vu.

Judge Robert Rosenberg examines a ballot in Broward County, Florida, during the election recount in 2000.

At issue in recent days in Palm Beach County is a local judicial race that is hardly of national note. But problems with administering the local election, and statements from county officials that some critics call confusing, if not contradictory, have some worried about the coming presidential election.

Polls showing a dead heat in the battle for Florida's 27 electoral votes only add to the drama.

"Managerially, software-wise, procedure-wise, training-wise, there is no confidence that these people will be ready in less than 50 days for the election we are all going to have," said Sid Dinerstein, the Palm Beach County Republican chairman.

"Never again!" was the county's promise after the butterfly ballots and hanging chads of the 2000 recount drama.

For 2004, the county switched to touch-screen machines. There were no major issues here. But some local Democrats, including Rep. Robert Wexler, demanded changes because they said the touch-screen system might be vulnerable to fraud and did not, in their view, provide a reliable audit trail.

So the county switched again, to its third system in eight years, this time a paper ballot that is scanned by an optical reading device. The paper is then retained in case of recounts or other irregularities.

Local officials say the system works and promise a smooth Election Day.

But Dinerstein says the recount in the judicial race proves the folly of switching.

"We could have had nice, reliable computers counting and giving all of us an honest count," he said in an interview.

The 2000 recount drama led to major changes -- more than 40 states made changes or adjustments to the way they conducted and administered elections.

"We have had more change in our election process since 2000 than we have seen since the Voting Rights Act of 1965," said Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita, a recent past president of the national association of top state elections officials. Indiana alone spent some $67 million on new equipment, including a statewide voter file, and also requires a color photo ID on Election Day.

Rokita takes issue with those who question the reliability of newer, high-tech systems.

"You know, we use technology in every one of our financial transactions and social transactions -- why did we not until 2000 put that type of technology to use when it comes to our most sacred civic transaction, you know, the voting process?" Rokita asked in an interview at his office in Indianapolis.

"The technology is just a tool. And what the conspiracy theorists want you to believe is the technology runs the election -- and nothing could be further from the truth," he said.

"If you have well-trained people who know how to use that technology and those tools, to know what to do if a battery dies on election day, all those things, then you will have a fair and an accurate election and the people are the ones who will produce that. And If they are not trained and they are not prepared, then you are not going to have a good election. But it is the people, not the machines."

Indiana expects a record number of new voters this year, and Rokita is changing his usual advice as a result. In the past he has encouraged voting on Election Day, saying it builds community spirit and gives voters up to the last moment to ponder their choices.

But this year, given the high interest in his state and nationwide, he suggests voters who are certain they will not change their minds help ease the burden -- and the potential for mistakes on Election Day -- by taking advantage of any early voting options in their states.

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