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    State aims for uniform, and accurate, vote system

    Officials are looking at replacing old machines with optical scanners or electronic touch screens by 2002.

    By LUCY MORGAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Until now, the state's hodgepodge elections network has been a quilt of systems bought and operated by 67 different counties in 67 different ways.

    Fifteen counties use optical scanning equipment that needs to be replaced. Twenty-four other counties use punch card ballots that date to the 1960s. One county uses lever machines, and another paper ballots.

    In all, that's 41 counties that need new machines.

    Now, after Florida's famously disputed presidential election, many in Tallahassee are predicting that when Florida voters go to the polls in 2002, most will find new ballots and machines designed to ensure as many votes as possible count.

    The goal: a uniform system, intended to meet the constitutional requirements cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in the election recount case.

    Both the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court said voters were being denied equal protection of the law under Florida's current system. The courts pointed to the inequities between punch card systems that are highly susceptible to errors and other systems with much lower error rates.

    Those rulings, and the overwhelming embarrassment that played out on a national stage, have virtually everyone in agreement: State laws must be changed and punch cards and their hanging, pregnant or dimpled chads must go.

    But what to put in their place? And how can it be done when cities and counties across the nation are moving to buy new equipment so they can avoid a similar experience? And how much is Florida willing to pay for it all?

    A task force appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush is recommending that the state expand the use of optical scanning technology in time for the 2002 elections. Though some have suggested the state should move to an electronic system -- using touch screen technology, for example -- experts in the Division of Elections say it probably can't be done in less than two years.

    Clay Roberts, director of the State Division of Elections, and Paul Craft, his chief technology aide, believe an electronic system could not be in place in time for 2002.

    First, state and local officials would have to decide on a system, get it accredited by the state, find the money to pay for it and get it ordered.

    "No one has the manufacturing capability to produce them by 2002," says Roberts, who notes that many other states are competing for the same equipment from a handful of suppliers.

    And the systems need to be in place at least 11 months ahead of the September 2002 primaries to be tested and used to educate voters, say Roberts and Craft. So optical scanners are probably the temporary solution, under that scenario.

    What the state actually does is up to the Legislature, Bush and each of the 67 counties. In the past, each county has always paid for its own elections equipment.

    Legislators now appear to be willing to chip in some state money and hope federal money will be available to help pay for new equipment. Legislators also are trying to come up with a way to help counties that need it without penalizing the counties that have already spent their own money to buy new equipment.

    Initially the state could lease the equipment and then look at other technology possibilities before the next presidential election in 2004, the task force suggests.

    State officials believe leasing the necessary equipment would cost the state about $20-million. Buying new equipment would cost about $40-million to $100-million, depending on the system chosen.

    In the Tampa Bay area, only Citrus, Hernando and Manatee counties have the new, reliable systems.

    Punch card voting systems, like those used in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, were cheap to operate and local officials, pressed to meet other needs, rejected pleas for new equipment.

    Now, after weeks of national embarrassment, the state is looking for a change.

    Optical scanning

    Optical scan systems that require voters to fill in a bubble or an arrow similar to the one on standardized tests and lottery tickets are already in use in 41 Florida counties, but 15 of those use a version of the system that needs to be upgraded. Experts say the preferred system counts ballots at the precinct and rejects erroneous ballots while the voter is still present and has an opportunity to get another ballot.

    Optical scan equipment would cost about $5,000 per precinct for the 4,000 precincts that need the equipment. Voting booths, ballot boxes and other equipment would add an additional $5,000 at each precinct. Total cost: about $40-million, but state officials believe the systems could be leased for $20-million for 2002.

    Computer screens

    Touch screen systems operate like the automatic tellers at many banks. They allow voters to select a candidate by touching a name on a computer screen. They are not currently in use in Florida and have yet to win state approval.

    Touch screens would cost at least $100-million, say state officials. The state would need at least one device for every 350 of its 8.7-million voters.

    Touch screen vendors price the devices at $3,500 and up, but some appear to be available at about $2,000 each.

    Touch screen systems would require electrical connections for every unit, which could be a problem in some voting precincts.

    Two companies have applied for state approval of touch screen systems: Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment of Oakland, Calif., and UniLect Corp. of Dublin, Calif.

    A third company, Hart InterCivic of Austin, Texas, offers a different system requiring voters to navigate the computer screen with a dial, much like a mouse on a personal computer.

    All three have voting systems that are being used in other states but have not yet met Florida standards.

    And, as each tries to sell itself to the Legislature and state officials, the boasting has begun.

    Officials with Hart InterCivic and UniLect say they could easily outfit Florida's 67 counties with new electronic machines in time for the 2002 election and also provide staff to help with the transition.

    "We could actually start delivery within 30 days," said Hart InterCivic spokeswoman Michelle Shafer.

    But Sequoia CEO Peter Cosgrove said some companies are promising too much.

    The election equipment industry is a smaller "niche business" that might deliver the machinery in time but would struggle to provide the staff support needed to train local poll workers, Cosgrove said.

    He suggested a phased approach. "I just think it's too risky to try and do everything at once," he said. "This is a long-term process."

    He also cautioned against one Florida proposal to try optical scanners as an interim system to be followed later by an electronic one. Besides the added cost, such a plan would force voters to adapt twice to new systems in a short period of time, Cosgrove said.

    - Times staff writer Thomas C. Tobin and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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