Paper ballots go high tech

In the new system, they'll be printed on demand, reflecting your precinct and party.

By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 26, 2007

By requiring all counties to use optical scanners, Florida is banking on a vote-counting method that has been around for decades in order to satisfy demands for a paper trail.

But many Florida counties will be relying on comparatively new technology to carry them through early voting. And with that comes the potential for snags.

As many as 27 counties, including Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough, plan on using ballot-on-demand machines to print ballots during early voting. Pinellas is using the system now to print absentee ballots.

Like it sounds, the machines allow poll workers to print ballots for early voters that are customized to their precinct and party affiliation. Which all sounds fine until the machine jams with a line of would-be voters snaking out the door.

"Anything new, you worry about it," said Kathy Harris, general counsel and chief of staff to Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson. "Because it is new, we're making sure it's a system that functions like we would need it to function."

The equipment comes in handy, thanks to two relatively recent changes in the way Florida conducts elections: the return to paper ballots and early voting.

Early voting with paper ballots presents a challenge, particularly in large counties and during primaries. In the two weeks leading up to an election, voters can show up to any early voting location, regardless of where they live, to cast a ballot.

But voters' choices vary depending on where they live and during primaries, on party affiliation. Plus, the state now requires that all early and absentee votes be tracked by the precinct of the person casting a ballot. Without ballot on demand, poll workers at 13 early Hillsborough voting sites would need to stockpile stacks of every possible ballot type. With ballot on demand, poll workers can print out a person's distinct ballot type when he or she arrives to vote.

"You only print the ballots you need," said Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark. "It's either this or you back a semi up with ballots for all the voters who might go to every early voting site and replenish as needed and hope the staff predict the right number of ballots."

Consider: For some elections, Pinellas has as many as 1,500 ballot variations. Hillsborough County will have more than 1,000 for the Aug. 26 primary.

Paper trail adds costs

The heavy-stock paper ballots themselves represent a major cost addition that comes with optical scanning. Johnson, in Hillsborough, estimates it will cost his office an extra $1-million annually in paper in order to conduct elections.

So minimizing the need to overstock ballots so that early voting sites don't run out becomes a priority. Clark said she already is realizing a savings by deploying her machines for printing absentee ballots. The system allows her to print a precise number of ballots rather than advance ordering from a print shop using an estimate. It allows her to mail them sooner as well.

If the system had been in place for the November 2006 elections, she said she would have saved $45,000 in printing costs and 600 staff hours.

Secretary of State Kurt Browning encouraged counties switching from touch screen to optical scan voting systems to purchase the equipment. The state is reimbursing part of the cost, including for those counties that used touch screen for early voting.

So far, only one vendor, Runbeck Election Services Inc., has been certified by the state to provide the machines in Florida. It has been supplying the equipment in its home state of Arizona.

Printers could jam

The machines look much like an office copying machine. And that is where some anxiety creeps in for elections officials. For as anyone who works in an office knows, printers break down or jam, or don't always produce clean copies. And that could easily become a fiasco at a slammed early voting site.

With that in mind, some supervisors aren't rushing to deploy ballot on demand. Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles plans on testing the new equipment, but he's not sure whether he will use it. There are several practical considerations, he said. For instance, if someone makes a mistake on his ballot and needs a new one, does he have to return to the back of the line? His county also is required to provide multilingual ballots, increasing print time.

"It works okay if it's just one person coming in at a time," Cowles said. "But when you start looking at early voting sites in a presidential year, you have to consider what's going to be the best way and most accurate way and fastest way to process a large number of voters."

Pasco Elections Supervisor Brian Corley says he's not rushing either, though he does plan to use the machines in August. He said his staff will undergo intensive and repetitive training to make sure everyone knows how the machines work and what to do if they break down. "We're going to play with this system and work all the bugs out well in advance," Corley said. "The key is our staff has to totally understand this and test it and test it and then triple test it."

Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties' supervisors are planning to purchase at least two machines for each early voting location, using one as a backup in the worst case scenario.

That's not an option in Leon County. The state is reimbursing only counties that have previously used touch screen machines, which chafes Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho, who has long used optical scanners.

Ballot-on-demand machines cost at least $5,000 each, a price Sancho can't absorb alone. So he'll rely on poll workers to "pick and pull" from as many as 500 different ballot types at his four early voting sites. "Elections have changed so dramatically in the last half-dozen years that we're not concerned about new technology," Sancho said. "We simply can't afford it."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.