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Election experts see positives in Sarasota ordeal

It will be an impetus for surer procedures to confirm touch screen tallies and for creating standards for designing easy-to-follow ballots, some say.

Published November 30, 2006


WASHINGTON - Once again, it is Florida's turn to teach the nation about elections. Again, it is teaching through failure.

The attempt to unscramble what happened in Sarasota County, which recorded 18,000 people not voting in a tight U.S. House race, was a hot topic at a forum of experts Wednesday, as state officials, computer experts and academics gathered to evaluate the mechanics of the 2006 elections.

Generally, results were fair across the nation. Many voters faced cranky voting machines, poorly trained poll workers and confusing identification rules, but few problems could have influenced the outcome. Among the exceptions, Sarasota offers a cautionary example.

Many of the experts in Washington doubted the touch screen machines were to blame for most of the 18,000 undervotes recorded in the Sarasota area House race. But they said Florida's attempt to validate the election - through testing a few machines - will pressure states and localities to institute procedures for double-checking the results tallied by touch screen voting machines.

It will also provide an impetus for creating standards, or at least guidelines, for better ballot design, they said.

A help to other states

"What's unprecedented here is you have that many undervotes in a race decided by so few votes," said Doug Chapin, director of, a nonpartisan group that analyzes elections and is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which hosted Wednesday's forum. It holds similar forums after each major election.

Trying to determine why "is an exercise in unscrambling the egg," Chapin said. "And what we learn from this will go a long way toward helping other states to figure out what will happen in other situations like this."

The official tally shows Republican Vern Buchanan with a 369-vote lead over Democrat Christine Jennings in the race to replace outgoing U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris in the 13th District, though the number of undervotes in Sarasota was about six times higher than in five other counties in the district. Jennings has blamed faulty touch screen machines, citing voters who said they had trouble registering their votes, and has asked a state judge to order a new election.

Meanwhile, an ongoing state audit of three touch screen voting machines recorded slightly different results from scripts used to test them in the contested congressional race, but the variations were likely due to human error, state elections officials said Wednesday.

One of the different votes was proved to be a result of an error in the scripts, said Jenny Nash, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Sue Cobb. If the remaining four vote discrepancies cannot be explained by reviewing the scripts, then auditors will begin reviewing videotapes of the testing, which will show whether mock voters properly listened to instructions.

'Banner effect' factor

But Nash downplayed the problems. "In 12 hours Tuesday, we saw no indication of any anomalies or anything unusual," Nash said. The second day of testing will take place Friday, when machines used on Election Day will be examined.

Chapin and others said they suspect the majority of the 18,000 undervotes resulted from Sarasota's lousy ballot design.

The House race shared Page 2 of the ballot with the gubernatorial race, which was set off with a teal-colored "STATE" headline.

This likely created a "banner effect" that drew voters' eyes to the state races, causing them to skip the House race, experts said.

Thad Hall, an elections expert at the University of Utah, said studies show the banner effect has caused problems in less high-profile races elsewhere, too.

But, as with much of voting mechanics, especially in Florida, there are no standards for ballot design and there is little help for local elections officials, whose resources and expertise vary.

In the 2000 presidential election, the confusing "butterfly ballot" in Palm Beach County likely cost Democrat Al Gore thousands of votes. But the response focused on outlawing punch card ballots, and many counties went to touch screen machines.

"Butterfly ballots in Florida told people they need to pay attention to design," said Cathy Cox, the Georgia secretary of state and a national authority on voting reform.

"With electronic voting, a lot of people forgot that's still an issue. There's a real science as well as an art to ballot design, but nobody really talks about it."

Wes Allison can be reached at The Associated Press contributed to this report.

[Last modified November 30, 2006, 02:20:45]

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