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Punch card voting goes back on trial

Tuesday's election will be the first big test of voter education, a beefed-up election force and checks on tabulation.

By ADAM C. SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- It's been bashed as an unreliable relic, blamed for botching a presidential election, and is on the verge of being banished from Florida altogether.

But the much-maligned punch card voting system isn't gone yet. On Tuesday, St. Petersburg has the privilege of holding the biggest punch card election since November's presidential election debacle. From Vero Beach to Miami Springs, dozens more punch card elections will follow over the next eight weeks, and elections officials statewide are gearing up campaigns to ensure that voters know how to use the system.

As if there might still be someone in Florida unfamiliar with chad.

"Everybody that has a TV, and probably everybody in the world, has a good understanding of what the issues are with a punch card ballot and making sure you don't have hanging chad," said Paul Craft, voting systems manager for the Florida Division of Elections. He expects far fewer voter mistakes than past elections.

Pinellas County elections officials, still smarting from their prominent role in the presidential election mess, are taking no chances. The county could have as many as 29 municipal elections between now and April 3, depending on whether run-offs are required. The individual cities oversee each election, but contract with the county to run the elections.

Even with turnout certain to be a fraction of the Nov. 7 election, significant changes are in the works.

Starting with St. Petersburg's primary Tuesday, poll workers will be on hand at every polling place to demonstrate proper punch card technique. Their message will be hammered home with myriad day-glow signs.

"PUNCH ALL THE WAY THROUGH BALLOT CARD. REMOVE ANY HANGING CHAD FROM BACK OF CARD. IF YOU MAKE A MISTAKE, PLEASE ASK FOR ANOTHER BALLOT CARD!" advise bright orange signs to be posted at each of the 1,094 Votomatic ballot machines scattered among 114 voting precincts in St. Petersburg. Every absentee ballot mailed out comes with a similar message.

That push for better education of voters, though, won't resolve what caused Pinellas County's major ballot-counting troubles. Pinellas' main problems were election worker mistakes, not voter mistakes.

Workers in the election center fed 937 absentee ballots through the counting machine twice on election night, and neglected to feed another 1,435 ballots into the counter. The mistakes were discovered the next day during the mandatory recount, which added another 417 votes to Al Gore's total and shaved 61 from George W. Bush's. It was one of the biggest vote shifts in Florida.

Criticism of the elections office led the local canvassing board to call for the state attorney to look into the matter. GOP Chairman Paul Bedinghaus had accused elections officials of giving inconsistent explanations for what happened that night. Pinellas Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe decided in December there was no criminal law violation.

Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark still doesn't know precisely what happened that night -- "I think it was three," she said when asked last week how many of her staffers made mistakes -- but "absolutely" has faith in her office's ability to handle elections of any size.

Clark said she assumed those same workers will be tabulating ballots Tuesday night, but she had no plans to check. She said she knows the name of only one of them, and will not release that name.

The tabulators include permanent staffers and some $8-an-hour temps. Clark sees no reason to bring in higher-paid people for the monotonous, high-stress count, because she said her staffers take their jobs very seriously.

"These were mistakes anyone could have made," Clark said. "They were honest errors, and they did not go undetected or undisclosed. There wasn't any kind of collusion to subvert the election results."

She is adding safeguards, though.

An extra person will be on hand in the Largo tabulation room to double-check that the same number of ballots received from each polling place is fed through the counting machines. Also, her office will double-check its absentee ballot count election night, rather than waiting until the next day to be sure its count of absentee ballots matches the number of ballots received.

Most of the policy changes focus on helping voters. Roving trouble-shooters will have more time to spend checking up on precincts. Where the elections office used to have advisers responsible for 20 polling places, now they'll be responsible for 10.

Likewise, more people will be available to handle phone calls, such as those from poll workers trying to confirm whether a voter is properly registered. Clark said 40 people will be on phone duty Tuesday, compared with 23 the last time St. Petersburg had an election.

Punch card systems, first developed in the 1960s and in use in Pinellas since the 1970s, are widely expected to be gone from Florida as soon as the 2002 elections.

Secretary of State Katherine Harris has suggested moving the state toward a uniform electronic voting system, possibly ATM-like touch screen systems, by 2004. A special elections task force is expected to recommend leasing optical scanning equipment (where voters fill in bubbles similar to lottery cards or standardized tests) to replace punch card systems in 2002.

In the meantime, though, 24 counties, including Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough, use punch card ballots. Those with elections looming are mounting public education campaigns.

In Palm Beach County, Florida's capital of voter confusion in November, the city of West Palm Beach will hold elections on March 13.

Palm Beach Elections Supervisor Theresa LePore has talked about airing public service announcements to remind voters to inform the elections office of address changes.

LePore, who could not be reached for comment, has also suggested posting a "Voters Bill of Rights" to remind people that they can have an equipment demonstration, can get up to three ballots if they make a mistake, and are entitled to vote if they're in line when polls close at 7 p.m.

In Miami-Dade, where 27,000 presidential ballots were rejected, Elections Supervisor David Leahy is pushing demonstrations at poll places, organizing public voting seminars, preparing educational videos, and looking at better training for poll workers, including possible tests.

"One thing we kept hearing is that some of the people were just totally incompetent," Leahy said. "We'll probably put together a fairly basic test. Some of it may be as easy as finding a name on a list."

Leahy, like Clark in Pinellas, has no doubt punch card voting systems will be up to the job in the coming months. More than likely, it will be their swan songs.

"I'm not worried about the system," Leahy said. "I'm worried about the voter and worried about whether we can provide enough instruction so they can vote properly."

Voting tips

To make Election Day run smoothly, the Pinellas County elections supervisor's office suggests that you:

Bring a picture and signature identification card such as a driver's license to the polling place.

Vote in the precinct in which you live. If you are not sure, call the elections office at 464-3551. Polls are open for Tuesday's city of St. Petersburg elections from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Punch all the way through the ballot card. Once you are completed, remove any hanging chad from the back of the ballot card.

If you make a mistake, ask for another ballot card.

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