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Politics

Recount method a touchy issue

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published January 24, 2007


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TALLAHASSEE - Secretary of State Kurt Browning on Tuesday defended using public money to challenge a decision by Sarasota County voters to require paper trails on voting machines.

Browning emphasized that his agency is not challenging the right of a county to change its voting system - only a new provision in Sarasota that requires manual audits of ballots, which is inconsistent with state election law.

Sarasota voters in November made the county the first in Florida to require a voting system with a paper trail by 2008.

The vote was widely viewed as evidence of a lack of trust in touch screen voting and has taken on greater significance because of the disputed congressional election that occurred in November in Sarasota County. The loser in that race still contends that voting machines must have been at fault because 18,000 voters recorded votes in other races on the ballot but did not record a vote in the congressional race.

Browning told legislators that Sarasota's new requirement that 2 percent of ballots be manually audited could take longer than the 10 days allowed to certify election results.

"The auditing provisions that were passed by the voters of Sarasota County are in direct conflict with state law," he told the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee.

He said Sarasota's go-it-alone decision could wreak havoc in a multicounty or statewide race that requires a recount.

"There's no standard in the elections code for what is going to be an official ballot," Browning said. "I don't think you can have a county that's going to make that decision."

Browning in the past has been a staunch critic of paper trails, but he has promised to take a more "global" (and favorable) view of the issue because his boss, Gov. Charlie Crist, supports a system that verifies a voter's intent.

Sarasota's paper trail decision was challenged by county commissioners, the county elections supervisor and the secretary of state. A lower court upheld the charter amendment, and the case is now before the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland.

Browning did not initiate the court action. It was begun by his predecessor, Sue Cobb, and is continuing with the firm of Gray Robinson representing the state.

State Sen. Tony Hill, a Jacksonville Democrat, criticized the legal action by Browning's office.

"I just think if the voters in that county agreed, and a judge has looked at it, that we shouldn't be spending taxpayers' money up here to void out what the voters have said in Sarasota," Hill said.

Browning, who spent 26 years as Pasco County's elections supervisor, defends touch screen machines as reliable.

But touch screen voting came under intense criticism Tuesday from nearly a dozen advocates, who were given a rare chance to submit suggestions to senators.

Speakers questioned the reliability of the machines, and some said the decision by 15 large counties to buy touch screen systems was driven by vendors and lobbyists, not voters.

The Senate is also accepting written comments online. The e-mail address is 2006election@flsenate.gov.

Times researcher Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

[Last modified January 24, 2007, 05:47:14]


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