tampabay.com

Touch screens pass primary test

The much-maligned machines seemed to have few glitches handling the big turnout.

By WILL VAN SANT, STEVE BOUSQUET and BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writers
Published January 30, 2008


In what was the last statewide election to use touch-screen machines, at least 39 percent of Florida's voters cast ballots in Tuesday's election, eclipsing turnout from recent primary elections.

The high participation came on a day that appeared free from significant problems, as the nation once again watched Florida decide a tight presidential vote. Touch screen machines continued to prompt some voter complaints, but not nearly the volume of past elections.

"We had a wonderful cast of characters running and a wonderful ballot question," said Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson.

Many of Tuesday's glitches appeared to stem from poll worker error, such as in a Miami-Dade precinct where more than a dozen Democratic voters allegedly weren't given the presidential primary ballot because workers thought the primary had been canceled.

Here in Tampa Bay there were a smattering of voter complaints, but no major problems emerged as 41 percent of Pinellas County voters cast ballots. In Hillsborough, at least 37 percent did, including 48 percent of registered Republicans and 39 percent of Democrats.

In Hernando, 45 percent went to the polls; in Pasco, 40 percent.

In 2004, the statewide turnout was 20 percent.

"So far, so good," Pinellas County Democratic Party chief Toni Molinaro said two hours before polls closed. "It's been pretty smooth."

Tuesday was former Pasco County Elections Supervisor Kurt Browning's first big test as the state's top elections official.

Browning had to rely on fragmentary reports on the isolated problems that surfaced and did not have enough staff members to get his own first-hand information from the field. Still, he was confident.

"There's this bright light on us, and that's a good thing," Browning said. "Overall, I'm very, very satisfied with the way our election was conducted today."

Trouble spots included Palm Beach County, where a poll worker was fired for mistakenly shutting down a precinct's equipment and delaying the start of voting 75 minutes.

In Pinellas, a handful of touch screens initially failed to record voters' selections. After machine adjustments and direction from poll workers, these voters were able to cast ballots, said Nancy Whitlock, a spokesperson for the Pinellas elections office.

The technology, which the state Legislature has ordered replaced in July by optical scan equipment, is used in 14 counties, including some of the state's most populous. Lawmakers made the change in response to criticism that Florida's vote had no paper trail.

For Tony DiMatteo, chair of the Pinellas GOP, the reports were no cause for alarm.

"I learned a long time ago that elections don't have to be perfect," DiMatteo said. "They have to be fair."

Despite several changes to precinct locations in Hillsborough County, foul-ups appeared few.

At mid morning Tuesday, several voters had turned up at their former polling sites in Ruskin, Dover, Riverview and Brandon, but they appeared to take it in stride. Maps explaining new voting sites were posted at the old locations.

State officials had expected turnout to top 25 percent. But with a property tax measure and a hard-fought GOP presidential primary on the ballot, the number inched past 35 percent.

Pinellas County Commissioner Bob Stewart said voters, after years of hearing about tax reform, wanted their chance at plate.

In Hillsborough, "Our phone lines have been completely jammed all day long," said Kathy Harris, chief of staff to Johnson. Among the callers, Harris said, were people confirming polling sites because they hadn't voted recently.

The absence of widespread election day difficulties was meager comfort to Pamela Haengel, president of the Voting Integrity Alliance of Tampa Bay and vice president of the Florida Voters Coalition.

Haengel believes touch screens are fatally flawed.

"We have to hold our noses and let the election happen," today, she said. "We continue to get the story that the machines are reliable, and we just know they are not."

Information from the Miami Herald was used in this report.

Strong turnout, but not a record

The highest turnout for a presidential preference primary in Florida was 58 percent in 1972, the year of the state's first primary, and the first year 18-year-olds could vote. Richard Nixon would go on to be re-elected over George McGovern. Primary turnout in Florida has generally declined steadily since then, to a low of 19 percent in 2000 and 20 percent in 2004.

Steve Bousquet