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Florida voting back in spotlight this Election Day

Tamara Lush

Let us count the ways things could go wrong on Election Day in Florida:

_ Thousands of new voters might not be able to cast ballots because of discrepancies between their registration forms and government records like driver's licenses.

_ An unprecedented number of new voters, combined with multipage ballots in some counties, will likely create long lines and confusion at the polls.

_ And there's always Palm Beach County. Using new voting equipment mandated by the state, the county lost 3,500 ballots in a close judicial race in an Aug. 26 primary. The ballots were eventually found but it took three recounts before a winner was finally declared a month later.

Ah, Florida ...

It was the laughingstock of the nation during the 2000 presidential election, when a contentious, 36-day recount resulted in George Bush winning the state (and, therefore, the White House) by 537 votes over Al Gore. The fragility of the state's voting system was exposed via hanging chads and butterfly ballots; the bungled election inspired an HBO movie and years of fodder for late-night TV hosts.

As Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain battle to the wire for every presidential vote in this state, the question remains: Will Florida be ground zero for another voting scandal?

Of course, nobody knows.

"There's plenty of reasons to be concerned about this election in Florida," says Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's state chapter. "And not just because it's Flori-Duh. You have to be a cockeyed optimist not to be concerned about this election."

Florida's elections chief, Secretary of State Kurt Browning, says the voting landscape has improved dramatically since 2000. For one thing, Florida now offers two weeks of early voting.

"Uniformity has been the guiding principle," he said, adding that recount rules, ballot designs and pollworker training are now the same in all 67 counties. "We have a pollworker manual now."

And unlike 2000, there is now a clear paper trail that shows voter intent in case of a recount. Voters now use pencil or pen to mark paper ballots, which are then counted by machine. Punchcards and their chad are no more.

Still, Browning, and most county elections supervisors, are cautious when it comes to declaring a trouble-free election. About 2.5 million more voters are expected than in 2000. And with 376,000 new voters registering between Sept. 8 and Oct. 6 alone (there were only about 504,000 new registrations in all of 2007), there will be long lines at the polls and other pitfalls, despite the early voting.

In some counties, the ballot is four-pages long — which means voters will take their time, adding to the lines. On Monday — the first day of early voting — lines of 50-plus people stretched around some precincts while voters inside spent 10 minutes or more with their ballots.

In addition, the state's "no-match, no-vote" law requires elections officials to verify the identity of new voters by matching their registration to their driver's license or Social Security card by using government databases.

Advocacy groups predict thousands of people, mostly the poor and minorities, will be denied the right to vote through no fault of their own because of the new law. Browning disagrees; he says recent changes make the system "much more voter-friendly." He adds that voters who must cast a provisional ballot because of address discrepancies have two days after the election to confirm their information with the local supervisor of elections.

As far as voting machine or ballot problems, officials are hoping for the best after hours of training and dry-runs. But Florida's most populous counties have changed voting systems three times since 2000, from punchcards to touchscreen computers to optical scan machines.

"It's very confusing to voters to keep changing," said Rod Petrey, president of the Collins Center for Public Policy in Miami.

The August primary election did little to restore confidence. In Palm Beach County — where the problems of the 2000 election first surfaced — a candidate for judge was ahead by 17 votes after the initial count of 91,000 ballots.

That triggered a recount. Officials determined that 3,500 ballots were missing. Weeks later, officials announced they had sorted out the missing votes. But then they had more votes than had been recorded on election night.

"The accuracy that the public in this country demands in elections does not exist," said Judge Barry Cohen, head of Palm Beach County's canvassing board.

Both the Obama and McCain campaigns are watching closely.

Hayden Dempsey, chairman of Florida Lawyers for McCain, says the Republicans are concerned that Democratic poll watchers may try to illegally "assist" voters.

Obama's Florida campaign has opened a toll-free hot line in Florida so voters can ask questions about the elections process; the campaign said it received thousands of calls before early voting began, including questions about early voting and even whether a voter could wear a campaign T-shirt to the polls.

"We want to bring in as many voters as possible," said Luis Vizcaino, an Obama campaign spokesman.

The Associated Press