Paper ballots to cost county

Residents will vote on optical scan machines, but funds from the Legislature fall short.

Published May 13, 2007

NEW PORT RICHEY - Now that voters have gotten used to balloting on touch-screen machines, Florida lawmakers have news:

Learn another way, and not on the cheap.

Pasco County and 14 other counties will have to switch to optical scan machines at polling places by July 2008, meaning voters will darken ovals to choose candidates on a paper ballot. Just five years ago, Pasco switched to touch screens as the cure to the 2000 election woes.

The Legislature, using federal money, set aside $27.9-million this month to buy optical scan machines for those counties to end paperless balloting, criticized for its potential to be hacked.

However, Pasco Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley and other supervisors are finding the state will not cover all the costs. And then they have much to teach the public and election workers about optical scan systems.

Corley said his early estimate is Pasco will need to pony up $500, 000 more to pay for other necessary changes, including 15 back-up machines and $45 inserts to retrofit privacy booths for marking ballots in 153 precincts.

The state has promised to pay for one ballot-scanning machine in every precinct, but no more. Counties, however, need backups in case a scanner fails.

The tab is expected to be much higher in larger counties. Hillsborough elections officials say they are not ready to determine a full estimate, but paying for new privacy booths for 361 precincts will cost $800, 000 alone. Hillsborough, which has a different brand of touch-screen machine than Pasco, probably cannot retrofit its booths, officials said.

These extra costs come as lawmakers seek to cut local property tax spending.

"What we're asked for, they're not requests but mandates, " said Corley, a Republican who took office in January after Kurt Browning's appointment as secretary of state.

Five years ago, Pasco spent $4.5-million on the touch-screen machines. Hillsborough ponied up $12-million.

Under the law passed this month, the state will keep any money recouped from returning or selling the touch-screen machines, minus paying off any lingering debt for counties. But Pasco and Hillsborough don't owe any money on their machines.

"There are a lot of variables in this equation, a lot of questions, " Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson said.

Counties replacing machines, which also includes Pinellas, have until June 30 to decide whether to allow Browning's office to handle the purchase of new equipment. Going alone, though, means finding their own money.

"They know I'm not going to put the screws to them, " said Browning, though he did not want to oversee replacing equipment "any more than they wanted me to do it."

In the aftermath of 2000, then-Pasco election supervisor Browning was touch-screen's biggest fan for its efficiency.

"Still am, " Browning said Friday.

However, questions over irregularities using touch screens in Sarasota County last fall, and Gov. Charlie Crist's support for a paper voting trail, helped fuel the move to optical scan machines statewide.

For people concerned that touch-screen voting was ripe for computer hacking, the change is good news. The actual ballot will exist for recounts.

Browning said voters have no reason to worry about the performance of optical scan machines, which he expects to arrive in counties this fall. Many voters, including those in Pasco, already cast optical scan ballots if they vote absentee.

"Actually, I've always thought absentee ballots are the best. They're paper ballots, " said Pasco Democratic Party chairwoman Alison Morano, who lauded the change.

At the polling place, voters will fill out a ballot, then slide it into a scanner to be counted on the spot. If the ballot has errors, the machine kicks it back for another look.

Touch-screen machines will remain available until 2012 for people with disabilities to use. After that, optical scan machines must be outfitted for people with disabilities.

Yet they do not make voting foolproof.

"A lot of them are going to have a lot on their plates in terms of voter education and preparation, " Browning said of supervisors.

For one thing, the right paper ballots have to be given to voters. There is a potential for mix-ups when different party primaries are the same day or precincts have voters from different districts.

That means new poll worker training.

Voters also have to know what to do, and filling out a paper ballot could take longer for big elections, notably the 2008 presidential race.

The changes will happen under the spotlight of a presidential election, which worries Corley and other supervisors who asked the state to make the changes in 2010.

"Implementing in a presidential year is going to be problematic, " said Corley.

Corley said his office may use television spots and mailings to educate voters, and he plans to go to community meetings like school open houses to get the word out there's a new voting system around - again.

David DeCamp can be reached at 727 869-6232 or ddecamp@sptimes.com