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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 August, 2004, 11:28 GMT 12:28 UK
Florida braces for election
By Daniel Lak
BBC correspondent in Florida

Scrutinising voter intentions
The 2000 presidential election descended into farce
Memories are still painful in Florida of the debacle surrounding the 2000 presidential election. But the 2004 vote could be just as controversial.

The problems in 2000 were caused by a close result and the difficulties of recounting the amazingly complex punch-card ballots used by the state's urban counties.

It also emerged that the Florida government had removed tens of thousands of names of suspected criminals from the voters' lists - most of them black men, who tend to vote for the Democratic Party.

This election was supposed to be different.

Billions of dollars in federal government money were made available to buy state-of-the-art electronic voting machines, and the administration of Governor Jeb Bush - the president's brother - pledged to remove injustices from the voting lists.

But recent weeks have shown that Florida's voting woes are far from over.

Electronic voting

The largest cities - Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Jacksonville - are now equipped with electronic voting machines that are supposed to be simple to use and able to count votes instantaneously.

State and county election officials have been aggressively promoting electronic voting as the way ahead.

Smartmatic voting machine

But recently, the Miami Herald reported that the machines used in Miami and neighbouring Broward county had software problems that threw their vote counting into question.

Computer security experts have also warned that machines could be hacked into, or influenced by master users with access to the main memory.

The manufacturers of the machines deny they can be tampered with so easily.

Voting-rights activists are demanding that all electronic voting machines used in Florida be equipped to provide a receipt to voters, recording their choices of candidate on paper.

But so far, officials and executives of the companies that manufacture the devices say that is not possible.

In fact, the Florida state legislature has exempted the machines from mandatory recount rules applied to punch-card and paper ballots.

Lawsuits

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit in federal court to force the state government to reverse that ruling.

Jeb and George Bush in Florida
Jeb Bush says there will be no repeat of the problems of 2000
A member of Congress from Florida, Robert Wexler, is also suing the state to force officials to provide a paper receipt to all voters using electronic voting machines.

His suit is expected to be heard before the election.

And to add to Florida's electronic voting problems, officials in Miami-Dade county recently admitted that detailed records from the 2002 gubernatorial primary had been lost in computer crashes - though stressed that no votes had been lost in the actual election. The records were later found on a compact disc.

As if electronic voting machine woes weren't enough, Florida is also mired in controversy over its list of voters.

In 2000, investigative journalists discovered that the state government had secretly purged tens of thousands of names from the list.

It was alleged that many were natural Democratic voters.

This was done under a contentious law banning people convicted of a serious crime from ever voting again in Florida.

But many of those on the so-called "purge list" of banned voters hadn't committed a crime in their lives.

They had been mistakenly included on the list.

Restoring rights

In the nearly four years since the last election, civil rights groups have campaigned hard to restore voting rights to those who were denied them in 2000.

John Kerry rides a motorcycle in Florida
Kerry would likely benefit if blacks were added back to the rolls
In early July, a judge ordered the state to make public a list of 48,000 people who were to be prevented from voting in 2004.

Most were black and there were far fewer Hispanic names than might be expected from analysis of crime statistics.

Newspaper editorials pointed out that Hispanics in Florida usually vote Republican while blacks favour the Democrats.

The state announced on 17 July that the list would be discarded and emphasis placed instead on restoring voting rights.

The influential US Civil Rights Commission held a hearing on the issue in Washington in mid-July.

Hanging chads may be a thing of the past in Florida.

But voting debacles haven't yet been ruled out.


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