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Crist wants touch-screen voting machines gone

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published January 31, 2007


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TALLAHASSEE — Eager to end six troublesome years of touch screen voting in Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist wants every county to switch to paper ballots by 2008.


Crist will ask the Legislature to spend more than $30-million to replace touch screens with an optical scan system that allows a voter to mark an oval next to a candidate’s name before slipping a ballot into an electronic reader — the same way absentee ballots are cast.

The change would affect a majority of the state’s voters living in 15 mostly urban counties, including Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco.

Crist will travel today to Palm Beach County, home of the disgraced “butterfly ballot” that in 2000 became a symbol of electoral ineptitude.

Accompanied by Secretary of State Kurt Browning and U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, a Democrat and a vocal critic of touch screen voting, Crist will endorse the change in voting systems while offering the money to pay for it.

“I think it’s important to make sure people have confidence in our voting system,” Crist said Wednesday. “If there’s a need for a recount, I think it’s important that we have something to recount.”

Supporters of optical scan voting say it is more certain to reflect a voter’s intent because it creates a paper record of every ballot.

In a touch screen system, a voter receives a card and inserts it into an ATM-like machine and touches the screen to record choices. The card is sent to the supervisor of elections, where the choices are downloaded and counted.

No tangible record exists.

Crist’s eagerness to junk touch-screen voting comes amid a continuing furor over the high number of undervotes in a close Congressional election in Sarasota conducted with touch-screen machines.

The lack of a paper audit trail has frustrated efforts to conduct a manual recount. The trailing candidate, Democrat Christine Jennings, filed a lawsuit asking for another vote.

Reaction to the Crist plan Wednesday was cautious.

Pinellas County uses two massive optical scan machines to process absentee and provisional ballots. The bulk of the voting during a county-wide election takes place on 3,400 touch screen machines.

Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections spokeswoman Nancy Whitlock said she was reluctant to comment on Crist’s proposal before the governor makes his announcement.

But Whitlock said that if touch screens were replaced with optical scanners, vote counting would take much longer. She said that under federal election rules, each polling place must have a touch screen to serve the disabled.

In 2001, Pinellas spent $14-million to buy an electronic voting system, much of it spent toward buying touch screen machines. Whitlock said the county would have to consider selling its touch screens, perhaps to a jurisdiction in another state, to avoid a financial loss.

Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said transparency and security are key points.

“It’s no secret Florida ... has been a lightning rod of controversy,” Corley said. “There seems to be the will of the people to move toward paper trails. If that would satisfy the people, then I would support it.”

 Some voting-system watchdogs expressed skepticism about what they see as a hasty decision by the new governor.

The American Civil Liberties Union said Crist’s impulse to scrap touch screen units and replace them with optical scanners was “too quick.” The ACLU said it was concerned with the impact on voters who do not speak English or have physical disabilities.

On the other hand, the activist group People for the American Way called Crist’s plan “a strong first step” and said touch screen machines “have caused too many problems in Florida.’’

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho, a fierce critic of touch screens, also hailed the move.
Sancho said Crist is following the recommendation of an elections task force made six years ago after the hanging-chad fiasco of the presidential recount. The task force urged that all 67 counties be required to switch to optical scan voting, but lawmakers left the choice up to each county.

One lobbyist wore two hats, representing counties and a voting machine vendor. The Florida Association of Counties received cash commissions in return for endorsing machines sold by Election Systems & Software of Omaha, Neb.
The result, Sancho said, was a politically-motivated, lobbyist-influenced decisions by some counties to switch to touch screen technology.

“We dumbed down the process to accommodate technology that has limited capacity to be audited,” Sancho said. “That was simply the wrong way to go.”

The 15 touch screen counties are Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Charlotte, Collier, Duval, Indian River, Lake, Lee, Martin, Sarasota and Sumter.

Times Staff writers Will Van Sant and David DeCamp contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

[Last modified February 2, 2007, 19:57:00]


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