Florida to abandon paperless touch screen voting

As part of a sweeping elections reform bill, Florida will also move its presidential primary to Jan. 29, 2008.

Published May 3, 2007

TALLAHASSEE – After seven years as America’s poster child for botched elections, Florida is about to abandon its multi-million dollar experiment in paperless touch screen voting dramatically increase its role in picking presidential nominees.

The sweeping elections reform bill passed by lawmakers Thursday will ensure that voters in counties with touch screen voting systems in 2008 will vote on new optical scan machines that produce paper records. What’s more, the state’s presidential primary will move from March to Jan. 29, 2008, making Florida the first mega state to vote in the presidential primaries.

“The right to vote is the foundation of our nation’s democracy, and Florida voters can rest assured that they will have an election system they can believe in,’’ said Gov. Charlie Crist, who intends to sign the bill into law. “With an earlier presidential primary, Florida will now take its rightful place near the front of the line in determining the next leader of the free world.

But some local elections supervisors worry the recount state is, once again, rushing too fast into a new system that, among other things, would include optical scan ballots customized for individual voters,

The early primary date also may create chaos in an already muddled national nominating schedle. South Carolina Republicans set to hold their primary Feb. 2, and promise to move it earlier than Florida. That in turn could prompt New Hampshire and Iowa to schedule their elections as early as December 2007, to guard their status as the earliest voting states.

Meanwhile, the national parties are threatening to punish any state that breaked the party rules, as Florida is, by scheduling a primary elections before Feb. 5, 2008. Some Democrats fear the early date could actually make the Sunshine state less relevant in the nominating process, because candidate may opt to ignore Florida because the party will strip away the state’s delegates.

“Democrats are 100 percent shooting themselves in the foot,’’ Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and top fundraiser helping Democrat John Edwards. “What it does is make Florida just a beauty contest because nobody will spend money here.”

The elections bill also makes it harder for citizens to file elections complaints against elected officials and candidates, and it would allow elected officials to run for president or vice president without having to resign their current job. In other words, if someone wanted to tap Gov. Crist as a running mate, he wouldn’t have to quit his job to accept.

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.
“It’s very bad for the process,” said South Carolina Democratic Party Chairwoman Carol Fowler, who argued that candidates will be forced to spend more money on television and devote less time to meeting voters.

The former DNC Rules Committee co-chair said she has no doubts that the DNC will enforce rules that will deprive candidates and the state of delegates to the national convention for holding a primary outside of the party’s rules.

“Under Democratic Party rules, this is an illegal process. They will have to have their own legal process later,” she said. “This is not much more than a straw poll.”

Some 12 states, including California, New York and New Jersey, are scheduled to hold their primaries on Feb. 5, and at least seven others are looking to move up their contests.