Even with optical scan, will seeing be believing?

A push to change voting machines yet again hopes to restore electoral confidence.

Published March 4, 2007

More than six years after a butterfly ballot and poorly punched ballots caused a meltdown, Florida still struggles to shake its reputation as the state that can't get elections right.

Gov. Charlie Christ wants to change that.

Barely a month into his tenure as the state's 44th governor, Crist announced his intent to replace the electronic touch screen voting machines used in 15 counties with optical scan systems.

The touch screen machines, which are used in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, are the focus of an ongoing challenge of election results in a Sarasota congressional race. Some 18,000 county voters failed to vote in the hotly contested race between Republican Vern Buchanan and Democrat Christine Jennings, and Jennings argues that such a high number suggests machine malfunction.

Buchanan won by 369 votes and has been seated in Congress, but Jennings continues to challenge the election results.

Crist wants to replace the machines with hand-marked optical scan paper ballots. And for the touch screen machines required by federal law - one per precinct for disabled voters - Crist wants to retrofit a printer to record each vote. He plans to ask the Legislature to spend $32.5-million to make the changes.

"I think it's important to make sure people have confidence in our voting system," Crist said last month when he announced his plan. "If there's a need for a recount, I think it's important that we have something to recount."

If Crist persuades lawmakers to go along with his replacement plans - as he is expected to do - it will be the second time in six years that Florida has replaced a problematic voting system.

Starting in 2002, lawmakers outlawed the use of punch-card systems like the one made infamous in Palm Beach County during the 2000 presidential election.

And while there are other issues the state elections office may ask lawmakers to weigh, such as bumping up the state's regular fall primary election from the Tuesday after Labor Day to the last Tuesday in August, the voting machine issue is expected to be the primary consideration.

And that's not just in Tallahassee: Federal lawmakers, disturbed by the Sarasota case, are taking some action of their own. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has called for investigations into the Sarasota case, and Rep. Rush Holt, a fellow Democrat from New Jersey, has filed a bill requiring a paper trail and specifying the quality of paper used.

State Rep. Pat Patterson, a DeLand Republican who chairs the ethics and elections panel, said he supports the idea of a paper trail but wants the state to use caution.

"If it restores confidence for voters and if it brings back some of the people who claim they don't vote anymore because they don't trust the system, then it's a great idea," Patterson said. But the state needs to be sure it doesn't invest in something that falls short of what Congress intends to require, he said.

No worries there, said Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning. His office is watching the action in Washington very closely. "This secretary is not going to get ahead of Congress," Browning said.