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Key States’ Ballot Officials Feel Glare of Critical Eyes

Times Staff Writer

In this humid Southern capital, Florida Secretary of State Glenda E. Hood is feeling the political heat. Lawsuits allege she has disenfranchised poor and minority voters. Critics claim that she’s creating a partisan atmosphere.

The Republican appointee, whose predecessor, Katherine Harris, figured so prominently in the 2000 election debacle, is pretty fed up. And this year’s election is still 12 days away.

“These people disappoint me,” she said of her many critics. “I get to my wits’ end with all the continual references to 2000. The last time I checked the calendar, it’s 2004.”

But memories of 2000 haven’t faded in Florida -- or in other states where Hood’s counterparts also are facing criticism. In the battlegrounds of Missouri and Ohio, Republican voting czars are under fire for allegedly using their offices to sway the election toward President Bush.

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In Iowa and New Mexico, on the other hand, Democrats in charge of elections are accused of making decisions to boost the prospects of Sen. John F. Kerry.

The debate highlights the increasingly controversial role played by secretaries of state: interpreting state and federal voting laws and setting complex ground rules that tens of millions of American voters must follow to properly cast their ballots.

Hood, the first Florida secretary of state appointed by the governor instead of elected by voters, insists that she has set her political preferences aside. Unlike Harris, who served as co-chairwoman of Bush’s 2000 Florida campaign, Hood is staying out of the GOP effort.

Others, though, straddle a blurry line between the administration of elections and partisanship.

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Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell is co-chairing the president’s reelection efforts there, while Republicans Dean Heller of Nevada and Jan Brewer of Arizona are actively campaigning on Bush’s behalf while fulfilling voting duties as secretary of state. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia’s Democratic secretary of state, has pitched in to help Kerry, even while running for governor.

GOP secretaries of state nationwide have allegedly blocked efforts to open early polling in minority areas, where voters are likely to support Kerry. Missouri Secretary of State Matt Blunt went to court this summer to defeat such moves.

Some election experts call for bipartisan federal oversight of the voting process, pointing to GOP election officials, including Hood, who are requiring voters to check off boxes on a registration form when asked about citizenship, or insisting they cast provisional ballots in the appropriate precinct.

Others say many of this year’s battles amount to healthy clashes of interpretation of state and federal voting laws.

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“Often, accusations of partisan politics are more disagreement about interpretation over the law than actual naked partisan vote grabs,” said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a nonpartisan clearinghouse of election reform information. “They’re legal arguments masquerading as partisan fights.”

But voter watchdogs are distrustful and have called for a nonpartisan group to monitor elections nationwide.

“I’m concerned about things I’m seeing, especially in Florida,” said Curtis Gans, who heads the nonprofit Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. “We need federal standards that can be applied nationwide, with an enforcement agency to follow up on problem states.”

In Florida, liberal activists fear a close race could again be marred by flawed recounts and discounted ballots.

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Local election officials have balked at Hood’s rule that new registrations be discarded if applicants failed to check the appropriate box affirming their citizenship, even if they signed an oath. Some have chosen to ignore the directive, and state Democrats sued in federal court.

“We have in Florida today the specter of Katherine Harrises past,” said Alma Gonzalez, special counsel to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which sued Hood’s office over several issues, including the filing of provisional ballots.

“We have to sue her, wrestle her to the ground, pin the Constitution on her before she respects voters’ rights.”

Critics say Harris helped swing the 2000 election by resisting manual recounts in many counties that could have swung the vote to Democrat Al Gore. Instead, Bush won by 537 votes.

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And though Hood had nothing to do with the debacle, she can’t seem to shake the comparisons to her predecessor. Voting activists question not only her alleged partisan politics, but even her grip on reality in dealing with Florida’s looming elections.

Hood, a onetime mayor of Orlando, remains defiant. She refers to voting activists as political mischief-makers trying to undermine a fragile voter confidence in the election process.

“We want the light to shine on Florida and show the nation we’ve made changes. Yet people are trying their dead level best to make people think we’re back in 2000,” she said. “That’s unfair.”

But many activists say Hood is more divisive -- and aloof -- than her predecessor, often placing administrative convenience over voter rights.

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Gonzalez said that after claiming to run an open shop, Hood initially refused to allow activists to witness a test run of touch-screen voting machines before relenting under pressure.

This spring, the secretary of state also tried to keep secret a list of convicted felons -- who are not allowed to vote in Florida -- who had been removed from the voting rolls; a Florida newspaper obtained the list and found glaring inaccuracies. The “purge” list was inordinately dominated by blacks, who tend to vote Democratic, while Latinos, traditionally more conservative in their vote, were left off.

This week, U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, a Democrat from South Florida whose district includes Palm Beach County, where many paper ballots were discounted in 2000, testified in federal court that the new touch-screen voting machines were “inherently incapable” of manual recounts.

Wexler sued Hood’s office, seeking a U.S. District Court judge to quickly impose some short-term fixes as well as long-term remedies that required touch-screen voting machines to issue paper receipts like those at bank ATMs. State lawyers, representing the secretary of state, say the new technology meets legal requirements.

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One Hood position angering activists involves a voter’s right to cast a provisional ballot. Under Florida law, voters whose names aren’t listed at their designated polling place are issued the ballots, which are held until officials determine if the people were entitled to vote.

Hood has ruled that voters must file those provisional ballots at their precinct -- rather than at any available polling place -- a requirement that activists say disenfranchises poor voters, many of whom are transient. And on Monday, the Florida Supreme Court issued Hood’s office a victory, ruling that people who cast a provisional ballot at the wrong precinct are not entitled to have their votes counted.

Hood questions the timing and motives of the challenges.

“If there were questions that people needed answers to, why all of a sudden, at the eleventh hour, are they deluging the courts?” she asked. “Where were they a year ago? Or two years ago?”

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While activists call Hood, a former high school cheerleader, misleadingly optimistic, the secretary of state promises a fair election in Florida. She has toured ballot-casting sites in hurricane-ravaged counties and spent a day as a poll worker during an August runoff election to see the process at ground level.

Meanwhile, Hood continues to confront critics head-on, including former President Carter. Last month, she fired off a letter inviting Carter to Florida after he raised the specter of partisan politics in her office.

“How could someone of his stature lower himself to speak out without the facts?” she said. “But I’m used to it by now.”


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