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    Voters may be stuck with punch cards for now

    One state official agrees the old punch card system has to go, but installing a new one will take time.

    By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2001


    TAMPA -- While optical scanners present a promising alternative to the punch card voting system and its notorious chad, the nationwide clamor for such scanners might prevent their being introduced across Florida by the 2002 election, state Sen. Jim Sebesta said Friday.

    If that is the case, the punch cards would remain for now, but a large-scale voter education program would help minimize the errors that plagued the recent presidential election, Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, said at a luncheon in downtown Tampa.

    Sebesta is a member of the 21-person bipartisan task force charged by Gov. Jeb Bush with investigating how to improve election procedures and with proposing recommendations by March 1, in time for the Legislature's session beginning March 6.

    "There was virtually no training" for voters in the recent election, Sebesta said, adding he believed perhaps 98 percent of the problems were "voter problems." With so many people voting for the first time, he said, the seemingly simple punch card system proved difficult for some without guidance. Even many experienced voters, he said, didn't bother checking the back of their ballots for dangling chad.

    "I'm not saying for a second that we're married to chad," Sebesta said in an interview.

    "Clearly, we've got to get rid of him. But whether we can do it (by the 2002 election), that's a serious doubt in my mind."

    Even if voter education made the punch card system more workable, Sebesta said it would be a temporary fix while long-term solutions were evaluated. Sebesta, the former supervisor of elections in Hillsborough County, acknowledged introducing the punch card system to Florida years ago, when it appeared to be cutting-edge technology.

    Under the optical scanning system, which Sebesta now finds preferable, voters fill in boxes with a pen or pencil and feed the ballots to a machine, which would spit them back out if they contained errors.

    Another alternative might be a touch-screen system that resembles an ATM screen, though it has the drawback of leaving no paper trail, Sebesta said.

    Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning, also on the governor's task force, said he had not heard there might be a shortage of optical scanning systems for the 2002 election.

    "I think the task force is pretty committed to doing away with punch card voting systems," he said. "I would venture a guess that with a public education campaign, you would probably have very little hanging chad in 2002. But do we want to take that risk?"

    - Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or goffard@sptimes.com

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