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Optical scan a success in Leon

With the state's lowest error rate, Leon's elections supervisor touts the method as voter-friendly.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- In Leon County, officials had to see just how bad an election could get before they voted to buy new voting equipment.

In 1986, thousands of Tallahassee voters were turned away from the polls on Election Day because the antiquated voting machines in use wouldn't work.

On Sept. 4, 1986, as it became apparent that the county's election process was suffering from a near collapse, then Secretary of State George Firestone went to court to try to delay the vote until the county's equipment was functioning. Circuit Judge George Reynolds refused to call the election off but did order the polls to remain open until 9 p.m.

But many of the precincts had no way to communicate with the elections office and closed at the usual hour, leaving as many as 5,000 voters unable to cast a ballot.

One of the candidates on the ballot that year was Ion Sancho, who is now the county's elections supervisor. At the time he was running for a County Commission seat and lost, but he came back in 1988 and won the elections job with a promise to fix the problems.

Then Sancho set out to find the best system he could.

"I resolved that evening to never allow that kind of disenfranchisement to occur in my community," Sancho told members of a state task force last month.

He set out to find an accurate voting system that was simple to use. It had to allow voters to correct their own mistakes before leaving their precincts on Election Day.

It also needed to be easy for precinct workers to set up, cost efficient and capable of handling a recount.

The system he selected -- an optical scan ballot -- is filled out by voters who feed the ballots into a counting machine. The machine will reject erroneous ballots while the voter is still there and can start over if desired.

He bought the equipment from Global Election Systems, a Vancouver, Canada, company that has since moved its operations to McKinney, Texas. Leon County paid about $750,000 for the equipment and became the first Florida county to use it, in the 1992 elections. Sancho says Leon elections now operate at a cost of about $1.98 per voter, a total that includes printing the ballots, administration and personnel.

Global also manufactures touch-screen voting machines, but has yet to apply for certification of that equipment in Florida.

Sancho doesn't rely merely on machines to get an accurate count of votes. He also promotes voter education, including mock elections in the county's schools. He sends sample ballots to every voter before every election.

When he counted the 103,000 ballots cast in Leon County on Nov. 7, Sancho found 175 ballots, including 45 absentees, that did not have a vote for a candidate for president.

The overvotes -- the most common problem in punch card counties, where many voters punched the holes for more than one candidate in a race -- totaled 55 in Leon County. All of them were on absentee ballots.

Overall, Sancho's undervote and error rate was 0.18 percent, the lowest in the state.

Sancho thinks the system he uses should be expanded to all counties in the state. He says voters are more comfortable when they can see a piece of paper that records a vote independent of computers and other technology.

"That's what marking on a piece of paper and having technology count it in a high speed fashion allows you to do," Sancho says.

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