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    Rent voting machines, Harris says

    Touch-screen technology needs more refinement, and Florida should wait before buying it, the secretary of state says.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001

    TALLAHASSEE -- With Democratic lawmakers clamoring for quick fixes to Florida's troubled voting system Thursday, Secretary of State Katherine Harris said Florida ought to rent -- not buy -- new voting equipment in time for the 2002 election.

    The reason? Harris says the best voting system may be computerized, touch-screen machines where voters would be forced to review their ballots before leaving the polls. But, she said, the technology isn't yet up to speed.

    "I think it would be wrong-headed and precipitous to purchase any equipment now. If you buy now, you're buying antiquated technology," Harris said Thursday.

    Instead, Harris said, Florida should lease optical scanners -- which read paper ballots after voters have filled in an oval next to a candidate's name -- until touch-screen technology improves and prices come down.

    This week, some state lawmakers were grumbling about reports that Harris' office wanted to spend $200-million by 2004 to improve voting technology. But Harris said those reports were premature.

    "That came from a draft report," she said. "I asked my staff for a ballpark figure of what it would cost today (to convert Florida to touch-screen technology). An internal study said if we were to do it today, it would cost $200-million. But we don't know what the true cost would be, because the solution we may buy doesn't even exist now."

    Harris, who drew worldwide attention for her role in Florida's presidential election debacle, made her comments after a lunch speech.

    "For me, it was very difficult for Florida to be lampooned," she said. "I really want to make sure that Florida's reputation is improved for the 2002 election. And, with all the attention, I want Florida to become a model for voting systems in the nation."

    Harris estimated that leasing optical scanners for the 26 counties that need them will cost $20-million. She said she will request money this year from the Legislature to add staff to start updating the elections system. Harris said she didn't yet know how much she would request this year.

    Debate over how to fix Florida's election system is expected to heat up next week, when Gov. Jeb Bush's election task force will make a final report.

    Meanwhile, at the Capitol Thursday, House and Senate Democrats gathered to demand what they called "meaningful" election reform before the 2002 election. They want $60-million pumped into the budget this year to replace aging punch card machines, improve voter education, provide training for poll workers and establish an online centralized voter registration data base.

    Republican Majority Leader Mike Fasano of New Port Richey called the Democrats' plan "the height of hypocrisy."

    "One minute, Democrats attack Republicans for reducing the burden on Florida taxpayers. Then the next minute, they're ready to dump $60-million into new voting machines without waiting to hear from the governor's task force or listen to one bit of testimony from the supervisors of elections," Fasano said.

    Democrats also want to bar anyone on an elections canvassing board from campaigning for a candidate. That provision is aimed at Harris, who sat on the state canvassing board while she was co-chairwoman of President George W. Bush's campaign.

    Lastly, Democrats want to make county supervisors of elections nonpartisan and they want an investigation of the company, Database Technologies, which incorrectly labeled thousands of voters as felons. Many of those later were purged from voter rolls.

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    Lucy Morgan

    From the Times state desk