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Crist: Get rid of touch screens

The governor tells Congress that he will push for optical-scan ballots in Florida.

By BILL ADAIR
Published March 24, 2007


WASHINGTON - Touch-screen voting machines would be virtually eliminated from Florida counties under a new plan from Gov. Charlie Crist.

Speaking to a congressional panel that is examining nationwide election reforms, Crist said he will ask the Florida Legislature to adopt a new plan that would replace touch-screen machines used in early voting with optical-scan ballots.

Crist's previous proposal had called for replacing the touch-screen machines used on Election Day with optical-scan ballots, but it would have allowed counties to keep using touch-screen machines for early voting, which accounted for about 20 percent of all votes in the 2006 general election.

The touch-screen machines were necessary in early voting because they could display ballots from different precincts. Otherwise, a county would have to stock ballots for every precinct at each early voting site.

Crist said his new proposal would rely on "ballot on demand" machines that could print a custom ballot for each early voter. The optical-scan ballot would be customized for the voter's precinct and would provide the paper trail that state officials want in the event of an election dispute.

Touch-screen machines are used for early voting in 29 of Florida's 67 counties, including Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Sarasota.

Crist's new plan would eliminate virtually all touch-screen machines. A single machine would be left at each polling place that could be used by visually impaired voters.

"I think people expect and deserve to be able to have a verifiable paper trail in the most important thing we do in this country - exercise our right to democracy and freedom," Crist said after his testimony.

The ballot-on-demand plan would actually reduce the overall cost of improving Florida's voting systems because the state would not have to pay to retrofit touch-screen machines with printers. Crist's original plan would have cost $32.5-million, but the revised plan would cost $28-million. The state has already received a separate $7-million for the polling-place machines for visually impaired voters.

Crist said that if the Legislature approves the request, the new machines should be in place for the primary elections in the fall of 2008. He said he did not know whether they could be in place for the presidential primary, which is likely to be held in late January or early February next year.

Crist's announcement was praised by Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton.

"The short and disastrous era of electronic voting machines in Florida has come to an end," said Wexler, adding that he hopes Crist's proposal "can serve as a model for the nation."

Washington Bureau Chief Bill Adair can be reached at adair@sptimes.com or 202 463-0575.