Voting officials feeling pressure

Their challenges include an early presidential election and replacing touch screen machines.

Published May 24, 2007

SANDESTIN - Two days after Gov. Charlie Crist signed a law requiring paper vote trails, the people who run elections in Florida voiced alarm at the speed of the changes.

At a Panhandle conference center Wednesday, election supervisors from around the state focused on a changed electoral world that includes a much earlier presidential primary next Jan. 29, random audits of election results, earlier deadlines for the reporting of voting data and the junking of most of the 35,000 touch screen voting machines that are only a few years old.

Some election supervisors question whether the $28-million allotted for replacement equipment is enough, especially at a time when they, as county officials, are bracing for budget cutbacks as a result of state-mandated property tax reductions expected later this summer.

"This whole thing is money-driven," said Bill Cowles, Orange County's elections supervisor.

By nature self-conscious of their state's reputation for election meltdowns, many supervisors are unhappy with the law, House Bill 537, because it renders obsolete the touch screens they consider highly reliable, even though a lot of counties are still paying for them, and despite irregularities in a Sarasota election last fall.

The state has ordered that except for voters with disabilities, touch screens be eliminated by July 1, 2008, and replaced with optical scan voting machines in which voters mark ballots by filling in ovals with a pen.

That leaves a paper trail of voter intent, but as Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Pat Hollarn said, it also may increase ballot overvotes, or votes for more than one candidate in a race, which is impossible on a touch-screen unit.

"This is a throwback to 2000 when voter intent was never clear," Hollarn said, sending a chill through the hall by invoking the election few people in Florida care to remember.

As part of the change, the state is encouraging counties to provide custom ballots at all early voting sites for all voters in that county, no matter where they live -- a system known as "ballot on demand."

Pinellas County's Deborah Clark, the only election supervisor in Florida who has experience with ballot on demand, voiced reservations about using it at crowded early voting sites in next year's presidential election.

"We need to do as much as we can as soon as we can," Clark said.

"I'm really feeling a lot of pressure here. It's such a big change," said Brenda Snipes, election supervisor in Broward, the state's second largest county.

Crist's top elections official, Secretary of State Kurt Browning, repeatedly assured election supervisors that the state stands ready to help them succeed.

"We will do whatever it takes to make sure that you're successful," he said.

Browning said he argued in vain against several parts of the bill, and despises a requirement that the state take charge of disposing of the touch screen machines that are now as discredited as punch-card ballots were in 2001.

Election officials were told Wednesday that to receive state funding for replacement equipment, they must agree to let the state dispose of their touch screens.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.