Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Did Florida goof again?


My generation was taught from the first day in school that citizenship?s most precious right and responsibility is voting.

But textbooks and practice are worlds apart. My introduction to election corruption was as a young reporter for The Miami Herald while covering Key West and the Florida Keys in the early 1950s.

A tipster led me to a discreet spot in the county courthouse where I watched voters being instructed how to vote while being handed small bottles of whisky.

The most blatant tampering with what we expect of elected officials was the Christmastime appearance in the Monroe County sheriff?s office. A local madam distributed cards with holes revealing faces on currency. She operated for years without interference.

Not much has changed. In Kentucky, a powerful businessman is on trial for allegedly buying votes with a gimmick new to me--paying people $50 each to ?drive? voters to the polls. No evidence voters were driven to the polls.

Other ways pollute the election process: Florida remains the premiere modern example of how citizens can be cheated out of full participation in democ-racy.

Yesterday, Floridians nominated a Democrat and Republican to succeed retiring Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. The question today is whether every vote was counted, whether every voter was allowed to vote, or whether Florida goofed again.

In 15 of the state?s 67 counties (they account for more than half of Florida?s voters), paperless electronic machines were used. But suspicions run so deep about their proper functioning many voters turned to paper absentee ballots instead.

Controversy even in that. Postal clerks told voters their mailed ballots needed more than 37-cent postage. Incorrect. The confusion was cleared up later with an apology.

The head of the American Civil Liberties Union in populous Dade County was denied the right to vote in early balloting unless he produced an ID. State law doesn?t require ID, only a signed affidavit.

Sullying the election was the controversial investigation of ?voter fraud? in Orange County by Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers who showed up at homes of blacks. Critics said it was to discourage black voting.

Bitter memories of the 2000 presidential election, in which thousands of votes either went uncounted or were lost and results tied up in court for a month, also prompted voter groups to assign precinct poll watchers and attorneys yesterday to look for abuses.

Worse, a Florida congresswoman is so cynical she?s asked the United Nations for monitors for the November election to assure honest returns--as if the Sunshine State is now a corrupt Third World country.

Is this the civics lesson adults want for their children?

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