No sign of intelligent life

In the science fiction movie "Sphere," a government scientist -- played by Dustin Hoffman -- and his comrades are assigned to investigate an extraterrestrial presence lurking on the ocean floor. As the three proceed, the alien grants them a bewildering array of psychic powers they can't understand or control. When the trio finally realizes they aren't ready for the beneficence bestowed upon them, they turn their backs on the gift.

Here in our "sphere" of Florida, it may be time to admit an obvious similarity: When it comes to the beneficent power of self-government granted to us by the founding fathers, we are not ready.

For the second time in two years, the Sunshine State has become a national joke for the manner in which we continue to mangle the electoral process at the heart of our democratic system. The Sept. 10 primary election was eerily reminiscent of the botched 2000 presidential bid, where irregularities and mistakes delayed the tally and forever surrounded George Bush's victory with a cloud of illegitimacy.

Despite $32 million spent fixing the problems and assurances from Gov. Jeb Bush that all was well, this most recent election was tarnished by faulty vote-counting machines, absent poll workers and exasperated voters unable to cast ballots. All told, problems were reported in 14 of Florida's 67 counties, including six of the seven that were sued after the 2000 vote. In fact, things got so bad that Bush ordered polls to stay open for two extra hours, and even that directive didn't make it to all concerned parties.

Naturally, the finger-pointing began almost immediately and, as usual, there is enough blame to go around. Election officers and workers in Broward and Miami-Dade counties must have been suffering from the bends, because the oxygen level in their brain cells seemed dangerously low. (Yes, you have to turn on the computers for them to work.) But Bush attempted to deflect away his share of culpability in a smarmy and disingenuous manner. "What is it with Democrats having a hard time voting? I don't know," he opined.

Here's a better question: Why is an inept bubble-head like former Secretary of State Katherine Harris (who presumably oversaw voting reform efforts and yet was too dumb to follow a law promulgated by her own department requiring that she resign her office before a run for Congress) allowed to roam the streets pretending to be a competent human being? If Bush cannot be held completely responsible for the latest mess, then certainly he can be held censurable for poor oversight of Harris' responsibilities.

And if the Democrats weren't so adept at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the party's nominee, presumably Bill McBride, could parlay the election day snafus into an argument against granting Jeb and his people another four years at the helm in Tallahassee.

But as of early this week it seemed that Janet Reno, who lost by a few thousand votes, will continue to challenge the election results, largely because many of the voters who were disenfranchised this time around were in precincts she had been counting on to win.

Unfortunately, Reno's challenge will likely cause people to focus more on Democratic disunity than on incumbent Republican bumbling, giving the Bush team undeserved cover.

Some larger questions underlying this latest fiasco remain: Why are Floridians so unwilling to fundamentally change the election procedures that allow these kinds of problems to happen again and again? Isn't it finally clear that tinkering around the edges of a faulty system only guarantees more of the same? For instance, we have the power to change election day to a weekend, or add another day to the vote so that working people can make it to the polls, or even move to an all mail-in system. What's with the whole Tuesday kick, anyway?

And when you think of the enormity of the need, how can we be satisfied with a paltry $30 million to "fix" the system. Can true democracy come so cheap? We didn't learn our lesson two years ago, and Sept. 10 was yet another muting of the vox populi.

Let's get serious about taking care of the gift granted us by the superior intelligence of Madison, Jefferson, Adams, et al. It's either that, or watch our democracy sink to the bottom of the sea with only the hope that some alien being will pound a little sense into our lazy, water-logged skulls. And that, as we all know, only happens in the movies.

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