St. Petersburg Times

 The chaotic nature of the ballot recount in Florida and controversies generated by the "butterfly ballot" and other obvious problems with the state's electoral process has led to much debate and potential action in Florida on electoral reform. A taskforce appointed by Governor Jeb Bush has issued a report at

The St. Petersburg Times has written several editorials in favor of instant runoff voting and also printed several letters on the subject. For a sampling, see below.

New voting system Series: EDITORIALS  St. Petersburg Times; St. Petersburg, Fla.; Dec 20, 2000;

"With Florida facing voting machine reform, we should consider the best system for accuracy, including new technology, and a runoff system."

Some postelection promises may wilt faster than last year's Christmas tree as Florida legislators take in the cost of replacing punch cards  with a trustworthy voting system. They need to understand two things right away:

They don't have a choice. The U.S. Supreme Court's opinions in the presidential contest-- the dissenters along with the majority-- virtually  wrote the briefs for any civil rights lawyers who may have in mind suing the states to stop punch-card voting.

"This case has shown," wrote the majority, "that punch-card balloting machines can produce an unfortunate number of ballots which are not  punched in a clean, complete way by the voter. After the current counting, it is likely legislative bodies nationwide will examine ways to  improve the mechanisms and machinery for voting."

For "likely," read "They'd better."

 They can find money easily enough when it suits them. Election director Clay Roberts' $200-million estimate is pocket change compared to  the $313-million in budget turkeys that Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed this year and the more than $1.5-billion in tax cuts that have been enacted  since his inauguration. Nothing is more important than fair, accurate elections. Yes, Rep. Sandra Murman, it is a statewide problem.

 The governor did well in the composition of the task force he appointed Dec. 14 to review what went wrong in the 2000 election and propose  new election procedures, standards and technology. The panel, co-chaired by Jim Smith, who has served as both attorney general and  secretary of state, and University of Miami president Tad Foote, should prepare to lobby for its recommendations once they are submitted.

The March 1 deadline Bush set, while essential if new technology is to be available by the 2002 election, is not much time to consider  changes in the laws for canvassing returns and contesting elections. But the need for those changes is as obvious as the need for new  technology.

What is not obvious is any justification for abolishing the runoff primary, as the supervisors of elections are urging. They're using the recent  crisis to sharpen an old ax. It may be a bother to sandwich a runoff between the September primary and November general election, but the  runoff serves democratic values that are too important to discard for the sake of convenience.

Without the runoff, Florida would not have elected Govs. LeRoy Collins in 1954, Reubin Askew in 1970 and Bob Graham in 1978, or Sen.  (and future governor) Lawton Chiles in 1970. Without the runoff, each party would be at risk of nominating extremist candidates, and Florida  politics would become even more polarized and partisan.

It is not necessary, however, for the runoff to remain a separate, sequential event. Voters could cast their second choices at the same time  they mark their first, saving enormous time and money for the candidates as well as the public.

The instant runoff would not be very feasible on Florida's punch- card voting systems, but that obsolete technology is soon to be history. The  governor's task force owes serious consideration to how new technology, such as touch-screen voting, could facilitate the instant-runoff  reform.

Instant runoffs take place in Australia and Ireland and have been proposed for election of the British House of Commons. The motion  picture industry uses a form of instant runoff to bestow Academy Awards, and the Heisman trophy is awarded by an analogous point  system.

Events have forced Florida to confront the failures of its present voting system. As it undertakes reform, one question should be foremost:  Why not the best?


The future of voting Series: EDITORIALS

St. Petersburg Times; St. Petersburg, Fla.; Jan 10, 2001;

While we can probably say goodbye to punch cards, it's less clear what new methods the election task force will recommend.

Though the governor's task force on elections has just begun its work, one recommendation is already sure to result: no more punch cards.  As the Nov. 7 election showed, and as Hillsborough's Pam Iorio reminded the panel on behalf of her fellow election supervisors, "We cannot  rest the fate of our democracy on the back of outdated technology." Governments no longer use punch cards for any other purpose. Neither  do citizens.

It is not so obvious, however, what technology should follow. One choice is the optically scanned ballot, similar to an SAT test answer sheet,  that is read and counted at the polls when the voter completes it. This lets the voter correct such mistakes as voting twice for one office. The  other option is touch-screen computers, which are virtually foolproof but cost so much more to buy as to make some supervisors and task  force members nervous about asking the Legislature to help pay for them.

Speaking for the supervisors' association, Iorio recommended a two- step approach: (1.)Immediately provide precinct-based optical  scanners to the 26 counties that still use punch cards, paper ballots or lever-operated voting machines. (2.) Commit Florida to touch- screen  voting "before the end of this decade."

A decade was more than time enough to put Americans on the moon, and it should be more than enough to provide all Florida citizens with  the best possible election technology. But there are drawbacks to this phased-in approach. Some counties would continue to use inferior  optical-scanning systems that invite errors or lose votes nearly as often as punch cards do. And as memories of the infamous 2000 election  began to fade, so might the interest of legislators and county commissioners in touch screens.

"I'm not confident the state or counties will see the urgency in 10 years to do that," said Kurt Browning, Pasco's elections supervisor and a  member of the task force. He proposed a plausible compromise Tuesday under which the Division of Elections would decertify punch cards-- effectively prohibiting their further use-- and counties would be given state aid to help purchase new technology of their choice. Whatever  the choice, however, it would have to meet minimum performance standards set by the state. The task force would be prudent to pursue  this.

Browning favors touch-screen voting, which requires no printed ballots except for write-ins and would lend itself best of all to replacing the  second primary with an instant runoff in which voters simultaneously mark first and second choices. Florida needs to at least consider an  instant runoff for general elections as well as nominations now that minor parties and independent candidates have easier access to the  November ballot. Otherwise, candidates will be elected with less than a majority-- or in some cases much less-- of the final vote.

"If a plurality vote is sufficient for election in the general election," argued Iorio, who wants to be rid of the second primary "why is it not  sufficient to achieve a party nomination?" It was a good question, but it raised a better one: Should any election ever be decided by less than  a majority of those voting? Not if it can be helped. This should become one of the guiding principles that guides the task force as it looks into what improved voting technology can do.


LETTERS  St. Petersburg Times; St. Petersburg, Fla.; Jan 6, 2001

"Instant runoff should be used in our elections"

The Florida Association of Supervisors of Elections wishes to eliminate the two-primary system to save time and money. Elected officials  from both of the major parties oppose such action partly because they have benefited from it and partly because they view it as thwarting the  democratic process.

Happily, in this case, there is a third alternative that answers the concerns of the election supervisors and the candidates. This is the instant  runoff or second-choice system. In this system-- currently used to elect the Irish president, the Australian Senate and the mayor of London-- the electorate rank their preferences in a 1-2-3 order. Candidates who win more than 50 percent of the first- choice votes are elected.  However, when no one candidate achieves the majority, the candidate with the fewest votes drops out, and the second choices of his or her  supporters are then distributed among the remaining candidates. This is repeated until one candidate gains more than 50 percent. Florida  used a similar system from 1913 to 1931.

In addition to the savings in cost and time, this system eliminates the spoiler role of minor parties in which they often benefit the majority  party with which they have the least in common. I am inviting my fellow citizens to join me in asking Gov. Jeb Bush's Election Reform Task  Force to recommend that Florida institute an instant runoff system for all elections.

Don J. Stewart, Tallahassee

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"Voting alternative has benefits"

Re: Time to resolve to fix voting system, Jan. 2.

After this last election fiasco it can be assumed that fixing the voting system will be a priority. What is equally apropos is William Raspberry's  suggestion for a preference system of voting, in which voters would have a first and second choice of candidates and if no candidate  received a majority of the total vote, then the second choice ballots would be tallied-- in effect an instant runoff. And no candidate would be  elected with less than a majority of the vote.

Many voters in this last election may have chosen to vote for a third-party candidate if there had been preference voting.

As pointed out by Raspberry, "It would be significantly easier to build third-party movements if supporters knew they weren't helping to elect  their least-favored major-party candidate and it would give third-party supporters more clout with the major parties, who would be tempted to  modify their campaigns to make their candidates attractive at least as a second choice."

Russell Lee Johnson, St. Petersburg