Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Having family living within minutes of Jimmy Carter’s hometown of Plains, Ga., I have long respected the former President as a man of honor and integrity.Regrettably, his recent partisan broadside regarding Florida’s elections system did not reflect his reputation for probity and fairness.

Mr. Carter knows better than to treat Florida as a unique and isolated example of election difficulties in 2000.Seven states experienced worse rates of “undervotes” and “overvotes” than Florida (the rate for his home state of Georgia was 3.5 percent, as compared to Florida’s 2.9 percent. The rate for Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago, was 6 percent).Georgia’s Democratic secretary of state, Cathy Cox, testified in March 2001 before the Senate Commerce Committee that, “if the presidential margin had been razor-thin in Georgia, and if our elections systems had undergone the same microscopic scrutiny that Florida endured, we would have fared no better.And perhaps we would have fared even worse.”

Within months following the 2000 presidential election, I proposed landmark election-reform legislation, almost all of which the Florida legislature passed and Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law. This legislation outlawed punch cards, while appropriating $24 million for state-of-the-art voting systems and $6 million for voter education, and poll worker training.In 2002, I spearheaded Florida’s adoption of historic civil-rights legislation that forcefully addressed the issues of voting machine and polling place accessibility for persons with disabilities.

Professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia praised our 2001 reforms, commenting that “what Florida is doing is leading the way for the nation.”Moreover, Stephen Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart III of the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project found “clear evidence of improvement” in our state’s elections as a direct result of our reforms, concluding that the new voting technology “substantially reduced” the number of undervotes and overvotes. They declared that “efforts to improve voting technology in Florida were not in vain.”

Rather than recognizing these achievements, Mr. Carter repeats discredited myths about the 2000 presidential election in Florida without providing evidence to support his claims. He alleges that “several thousand ballots of African Americans were thrown out on technicalities,” when 1) the American tradition of ballot secrecy prevents us from knowing the race of a voter who cast a spoiled ballot, and 2)no shred of evidence exists to support the far-left accusation that “thousands of African Americans” were prevented from voting because of Florida’s effort to remove felons and other ineligible voters from the registration rolls, which was required by 1998 legislation sponsored by two Democratic legislators and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles.

In fact, during the 18 months of litigation that followed Election 2000, only two persons testified that they were unable to vote in that election because their names erroneously appeared on the mandated list of potentially ineligible voters. Nevertheless, because one qualified voter’s loss of this sacred right constitutes an anathema to me,I made certain that the groundbreaking election reforms that Florida enacted in 2001 included “provisional ballots” (enabling individuals whose registration status is challenged at the polls to vote and have that vote counted upon later verification of their eligibility).

President Carter accuses Gov. Bush, Secretary of State Glenda Hood and me of nursing “strong political biases that prevent necessary reforms.”Aside from the fact that Mr. Carter cannot cite one instance where I did not follow the law precisely in 2000, his analysis fails the test of fundamental fairness.

Mr. Carter assails my role as one of eight honorary co-chairs for the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign in Florida without acknowledging that statewide elected officials (including secretaries of state) have often served in this capacity.Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat who injected himself into the recount controversy, served as Al Gore’s Florida campaign chair (and actively ran Mr. Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign from his office).My predecessor as secretary of state chaired Sen. Phil Gramm’s 1996 presidential campaign.Democratic secretaries of state in battleground states either served as Mr. Gore’s campaign co-chair or actively campaigned for the former vice president in 2000.

Most shockingly, Mr. Carter exclaims that current Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood “was a highly partisan elector for George W. Bush in 2000” without mentioning that Georgia’s Democratic Secretary of State served as an elector for Al Gore during the very same election.Based on the standards he sets, not even Mr. Carter’s home state would meet “basic international requirements for a fair election.”Yet, he limits his call for “maximum public scrutiny” to Florida.

I choose to believe that Mr. Carter is radically misinformed rather than actively seeking to de-legitimize any outcome that does not deliver Florida’s 27 electoral votes to John Kerry.Either way, he has not enhanced his image as an elder statesman whose opinions Americans can trust.

Rep. Katherine Harris is a freshman Republican congrersswomanand former secretary of state of Florida.

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