Monday, September 22, 2008

Florida Could Again Muddle Race For White House

TAMPA, Fla. -- Just as in 2000, both political parties are battling for Florida, where Republican Sen. John McCain holds a single-digit lead over Democratic Sen. Barack Obama.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="262" caption="Florida remains a key battleground state for the presidential contenders, who hope to avoid a repeat of the snafus that precipitated a recount in 2000. Here, in a December 2000 photo, officials examine ballots in Tallahassee."]Florida remains a key battleground state for the presidential contenders, who hope to avoid a repeat of the snafus that precipitated a recount in 2000. Here, in a December 2000 photo, officials examine ballots in Tallahassee.[/caption]

And eight years after Florida's recount drama, a new election debacle in Palm Beach County, home of the infamous "butterfly ballot," as well as new voting laws and untested voting machines, suggest the Sunshine State could again muddle the White House contest.

Keeping the state's 27 electoral votes in the Republican column are key to Sen. McCain's national election strategy. In a campaign that has stinted on ground staff elsewhere, he has commandeered 60 Republican Party offices around the state and has about 70 paid employees on the ground. Though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 500,000 voters statewide, both sides say the Republicans have proven better over the years at turning out their voters. In 2004, President George W. Bush won the state by five percentage points.

"We're taking the Bush 2004 turnout model and tweaking it a bit," said Buzz Jacobs, director of Sen. McCain's operations in the state. "We have a lot of experienced people on the ground who know how to run elections in Florida."

For Sen. Obama, Florida could lead him to the White House. "It's the motivating factor we give our staff every day: You win Florida, Barack is the new president," said Steve Schale, the Obama campaign's state director.

The Obama campaign has said it will spend $40 million in the state. Sen. Obama is fielding a staff more than four times larger here than Sen. McCain's. Sen. Obama has 50 field offices, in addition to those operated by the Democratic Party. Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee, had 14.

The Obama campaign also says it has registered about 100,000 new voters this year, part of 250,000 new registrants in the state overall, and the majority of them are Democrats.

Now comes the bigger task: making sure inexperienced voters can navigate two new state laws. The first is the so-called "No match, no vote" law, which requires a match between a voter's driver's license or Social Security number and a government database. Critics say database records are riddled with errors.

A second law allows citizens to challenge the legitimacy of fellow voters. Challengers need not prove their accusations. Instead, the challenged voter has two days to justify his right to cast a ballot.

State Republican lawmakers who pushed the law say it will help combat fraud. Democrats call it a vote-suppression measure. "Now why would the legislature make it easier to challenge, instead of, say spending more money on voter education?" said Chuck Lichtman, a Fort Lauderdale attorney. He heads a Democratic effort to put volunteer lawyers in every Florida precinct. Mr. Lichtman says 5,000 lawyers have signed up for the task, up from 3,500 in 2004.

Other battleground states have recently tightened voter-identification laws, but Florida was named "the most hostile state in the nation to new voters" by three national voting-rights groups.

At a recent training seminar in Tampa for about 300 Obama campaign staffers, an election lawyer went over election-law changes that could lead to mass voter challenges. The staff monitors elections across the state. "We're going to be very aggressive this time," said Mr. Schale, who worked in the 2000 recount. "While I'm sitting in some office in Tampa, the staff will be my eyes and ears."

Republicans aren't giving details about their preparations. "If there's something that looks suspicious, we want it investigated by the appropriate authorities," said Mr. Jacobs.

Other potential problems loom, including equipment snafus. In a 2006 congressional election in Sarasota County, machines failed to log some 3,000 votes. As a result, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist ordered all 67 Florida counties to use optical scanning machines, which read hand-marked ballots and provide a complete audit record.

But a recent Palm Beach County election showed that better machines don't solve all problems.

For the last month, county residents have been awaiting the result of the Aug. 26 election for a circuit judgeship. William Abramson appeared to have toppled longtime incumbent Richard Wennet by a margin of 17 votes out of 100,000 cast. But in a subsequent recount, Mr. Wennet won by 60 votes, and elections officials reported that 3,500 ballots had gone missing.

Mr. Abramson has filed a lawsuit. Further counts offered varying results, including 190 ballots that were overlooked on election night. A state judge ordered county officials to try again Friday. If the numbers don't balance, he said, he would order a new election. "It seems like Groundhog Day," said Glenn Burhans Jr., a lawyer for Mr. Wennet. "Let's hope this doesn't happen in November because things could get really ugly."

Write to Christopher Cooper at

Source: WSJ.Com

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