Back to the future, riding the paper trail

Published April 10, 2007

The punch cards got a bum rap, you know.

A lot of Floridians used to vote by punching them. They usually worked fine. But then we had the 2000 election, which was too close to call.

That election would have been too close to call under any voting system. But it was easy to blame the punch cards and their hanging chads.

So we switched. There are 15 counties in Florida now using touch screen, computerized voting. That's a majority of the registered voters in Florida.

Yet that has created a whole new debate, with critics complaining that touch screens leave no "paper trail."

I never bought into the super-duper conspiracy theories about touch screens. But there have been enough glitches and flaps, such as the congressional election in Sarasota in November, to show that having a paper trail just makes common sense.

Typically, new Gov. Charlie Crist broke the partisan stalemate. His proposed budget includes more than $30-million for replacing Florida's touch screen machines.

Here's where Crist's idea stands: The state Senate might go along; the Senate's Ethics and Elections Committee is meeting this morning to talk about it. The House doesn't have the money in its budget yet.

On Monday, a group called the Florida Voters Coalition held a news conference to complain that Crist's idea doesn't go far enough.

Sure, the group likes replacing touchscreen machines, but it also wants:

- Mandatory random audits to verify machine results.

- Manual recounts of all ballots, not just "overvotes" and "undervotes" (ballots in which voters have chosen no candidate or too many).

- A "ballot on demand" system, in which even early voters get a paper ballot instead of using a touch screen.

- Faster certification for new voting systems, so that disabled voters are not required to keep voting on touch screens either.

- A longer deadline before certifying election results as final, to allow more time for audits and challenges.

I talked afterward to Kurt Browning, Florida's secretary of state, who oversees the Division of Elections. Browning, you might remember, was Pasco County's elections supervisor before Crist chose him for his current job.

Browning sounded a little frustrated. After all, he said, Crist's proposal takes care of the critics' single biggest goal - a paper trail.

As a practical matter, he said, it's not a good idea to get into rewriting election law this late in the game, especially when it's still not a done deal that the Legislature will give Crist the money to replace the machines at all.

"Let us get this thing on the paper ballots taken care of," Browning said. With that done, other issues can be dealt with in turn, he said.

The voters group has pretty good goals, it seems to me . If we do return to a paper trail, we should be able to use it.

But as Browning points out, there's a practical consideration, too. It will be a huge win if the Legislature takes Crist's idea - a case, you might say, of nine-tenths of a loaf being better than none.

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I'm in Tallahassee this week, watching the annual session of our Legislature. I'm posting updates during the day online at TroxBlog. Go to www.tampabay.com and click on the "Blogs" link.