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    Pay now or pay later for new voting system

    We've seen the worst of a weak voting system, so now lawmakers are faced with deciding what they'll do to improve it. The question is, will they embrace the best, though costly, or skimp now and pay later?

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    By MARTIN DYCKMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


    Having shown the nation how many ways an election can go wrong, Florida should be eager to demonstrate how to do one right.

    But it's no sure thing that Florida will commit itself to state-of-the-art voting equipment that could minimize voter error and all but eliminate the need for recounts. Inertia is strong here. Money is unusually tight. Where there's a way, there may not be the will.

    In some respects, there is no choice. For fear that courts will compel it if they don't act, legislators and other policymakers are likely to see to the prompt replacement of the outmoded voting equipment used in 41 of Florida's 67 counties. Collectively, they accounted for 90 percent of the state's 179,855 blank or spoiled ballots Nov. 7, setting off the 36-day presidential recount drama that gave George W. Bush the presidency by just 537 certified votes, a margin of .009 percent.

    "There was no room for errors, and yet there were errors," summarized Gov. Jeb Bush's Select Task Force on Election Procedures, Standards and Technology.

    That election is history, and so too, surely, are the punch cards for which it will be remembered. The task force is calling on Secretary of State Katherine Harris to decertify punch cards and other disfavored methods as soon as a new "uniform voting system" is authorized. Gone, along with the punch cards, will be those optically scanned ballots that are counted only at a central location, too late to alert voters to mistakes.

    With lawsuits pending, there really isn't much choice about replacing these with the only other certified system -- optically scanned ballots that are counted at each precinct -- that could be put into statewide use in short order.

    Beyond that, prepare to hear a familiar excuse -- we don't have the money -- for choosing "good enough" rather than "as good as it gets."

    "Good as it gets" would be the touch-screen voting machines that are winning applause in rural communities in places as diverse as rural North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, Michigan and Iowa; California's sprawling suburbs and even the Amazon jungle of Brazil.

    "Good enough" would be the optically scanned ballot systems currently used by Citrus, Hernando and 24 other counties that record votes at each precinct. Voters select candidates by filling in ovals or circles with special pens. The counting machines that scan these ballots can be set to reject mismarked ballots and give the voter another chance. The failure rate averaged much lower than for punch cards or for ballots scanned only at a central location.

    "A paperless, touch-screen system represents the greatest step forward in election technology," Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Pam Iorio told the governor's task force. Among the advantages:

    You can't over-vote a touch screen, and it will remind you at checkout for whom you have voted and what races you may have skipped.

    Its computer memory can accommodate any number of issues, candidates, ballot styles and languages. Other than for absentees, no ballots need to be preprinted or stored. That's a big attraction to large-county supervisors like Iorio, who had to prepare 82 different forms, and Pinellas' Deborah Clark, who had to deal with 40 different combinations of local, legislative and congressional districts.

    What's on the screen can be enlarged on demand or even programmed for vision-impaired voters.

    Returns can be downloaded by telephone and tallied countywide within minutes after polls close.

    Voters would no longer need to be tied to their precincts. Central voting stations could be set up in public buildings staffed by government employees, easing problems presently attributed to a high turnover of inadequately trained poll workers.

    Touch screens are known by the acronym DRE -- for direct recording equipment. No such equipment is presently certified by the elections division, whose standards are considered among the toughest in the country. The task force balked on that account from recommending DRE for the long range, though it had looked earlier as if that was what the panel would do. It chose instead to simply mention unspecified "future advances in new technology."

    "The fact is, it's not there yet," insisted Jim Smith, a former secretary of state and co-chairman of the task force. " ... We have left the door open," he said. "I am not unmindful of the lobbying that has gone on by vendors."

    For the 2002 election cycle, the task force is recommending precinct-counted optical scanners in all counties and is urging the state to help counties lease them while it looks into more advanced technology for the future.

    That consensus, which struck some elections supervisors, all the DRE vendors and even some task force members as halfhearted, reflected misgivings about the newness of the technology, worries about not having paper ballots to recount, and deep fears about persuading the Legislature and assorted county commissions to invest larger sums up front. The supervisors' association, in fact, had set DRE as a goal for no sooner than "the end of the decade."

    But some fear that they'll never get to the promised land.

    "When you put a system in, it's hard to get a system out," warns Kurt S. Browning, Pasco's elections supervisor, a member of the governor's task force.

    Harris, who is Florida's chief elections official, agrees that DRE may eventually be the best. But she's not sufficiently confident of the technology to recommend it for the 2002 election and says Florida should rent optical scanners for the time being.

    That approach, if endorsed by the Legislature, could be problematic for counties that might seek state aid to make the great leap now.

    DRE is not rocket science. Similar machines process fast-food orders and let customers check out their own groceries at some supermarkets.

    In Florida elections, DRE would relieve the nightmare pressure on supervisors to print and mail absentee ballots within the short time frame of a September primary, an October runoff and a November general election. The stress will be even greater as counties exchange punch cards for preprinted ballots. Touch-screen voting, however, would easily lend itself to replacing the runoff with an instant round of second-choice voting. (The task force voted down a proposal to abolish the runoff, recommending an earlier first primary instead.)

    DRE would also simplify the business of rewriting Florida election law to provide what the Supreme Court said was fatally missing: a single statewide canvassing standard. With touch screens, there's no guessing what a voter meant to punch or bubble in. A vote is either recorded or it isn't. That appeals to conservatives like House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo.

    "That solves a lot of equal-protection problems," Feeney remarked in an interview. "The interesting thing about that is zero deviation. . . . That was one of the most disturbing things about the recount, a different answer every time."

    Touch screens could also reduce the demand for absentee ballots.

    Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who hopes to have touch screens everywhere in her state by 2004, has told vendors that one long-range goal is to let citizens vote wherever it's convenient.

    "Most people I know live in one county and work in another," says Cox. "Many people cannot get back to their precinct by 7 p.m. So why not allow people to vote where they are naturally going to be?"

    Cox isn't sold on the best optical-scan system for even the short range.

    "We have had problems where counties invariably will end up giving people the wrong pen or pencil to mark those ballots, and nothing reads," she said. On a very rainy day in one county, she added, ballots absorbed so much moisture the scanners wouldn't read them until they had been blow-dried with hair dryers.

    "We found in Georgia, particularly in areas of greater poverty and lesser educational levels, that there are huge undervote rates with optical scan systems," Cox said. "I think people like optical scan up here not because it's the best of what we've seen but because it's the best available."

    There were wasted or miscounted votes even among the Florida counties that use the best available system. The variables include poverty, education, ballot complexity and the time and money spent -- or not spent -- on preparing voters. Though Pinellas still uses punch cards, it logged proportionately fewer wasted votes than three smaller counties that use the best available optical-scan systems. But in Duval, another punch-card county, nearly 27,000 voters -- more than 9 percent -- went unrecorded in the presidential race, which occupied two pages at the polls. In Palm Beach County, whose "butterfly" ballot listed presidential candidates on both sides of a single column of holes to punch, there were three times as many blank or spoiled ballots as in Pinellas.

    Some Republican leaders have been heard to say privately that if Democratic voters are more likely to make such mistakes, why stop them?

    Others express it as a question of "voter responsibility."

    "I happen to believe that what a voter intended to do is irrelevant," says Feeney. "At what level do you expect voters to exercise the minimum responsibility of a citizen?"

    There is also a problem with the tight budget. Iorio has estimated that it would cost only $25-million to equip 41 more counties with the best optical-scanning systems, which require only one computer for each precinct. Gov. Jeb Bush, having earmarked no money for voting technology, says he could still spare up to $30-million.

    That wouldn't go far for DRE. Paul Craft, the elections division's systems expert, estimated that it could cost as much as $100-million to put a touch-screen computer at every Florida voting station. Harris, his boss, says it could cost twice that if done in a hurry. Industry lobbyists insist it could be done for much less.

    But the optical scanners could cost counties heavily in the long run because ballots have to be printed on high-quality paper to exacting standards. Craft's estimate: $5-million per election. Over time, that would pay for a lot of touch screens.

    The touch technology's enthusiastic boosters include Michelle Townsend, the voting registrar in Riverside County, Calif., which last fall became the largest jurisdiction to vote entirely on DRE. She said in an interview that she had thought of updating her 20-year-old optical-scanning system, "But I would still have been left with paper ballots, the problems of storing and handling them, and inadvertent human errors.

    * * *

    Since November, three DRE manufacturers have applied for Florida certification, and more applications are expected. Not everyone, however, wants the process to be hurried.

    "If we can put that off a little, the cost will come down significantly," says Rep. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, who as chairman of the House elections committee will have a lot to say about how fast the state moves toward DRE and who pays.

    Bush, a technology maven, is uncharacteristically on the go-slow side where voting is concerned.

    "If there's a close election, what do you do about recounts?" he asked during a meeting with the Times editorial board. Voters, he said, "want some evidence that their vote was recorded. . . . I worry about overtechnologizing."

    In fact, DREs generate paper trails. Some can print out instant receipts for each voter, just as a restaurant's computer itemizes a bill. All have redundant memory chips.

    "The (DRE) audit trail is much better than we ever had with paper ballots," says Townsend, describing a flawless recount.

    "My personal opinion," says Craft, "is that it's time to get away from paper."

    DRE suffered a recent setback with publication of a joint report by the Massachusetts and California institutes of technology that said DRE systems had posted the highest rate of unmarked ballots last November. That may have been due to voter unfamiliarity with the technology and to the possibility, as suggested by Craft, that some localities had set their machines so as not to alert voters to having skipped a race. Fearing legal problems, Craft said, "They wanted people voting that system to have the same error protection as a plain paper ballot."

    It is widely conceded that better technology isn't the whole solution. Among the task force's other preliminary recommendations:

    A statewide voter registration database (like Georgia's), which, among other things, should minimize duplication and help ensure that every "motor voter" registration makes it to the voter rolls.

    In concept, provisional ballots for voters whose credentials are challenged at the polls. Other states use them.

    The Legislature should set minimum standards for voter and poll-worker education and provide "adequate funding."

    The state should concede that absentee voting "is now a convenient and widespread alternative means of voting" and make it easier to do.

    The state should have clearer standards for canvassing and recounts; only overvotes and undervotes should be subject to manual recounts. Manual recounts should be automatic when the margin is less than a quarter of a percent and should be done everywhere that the race in question was on the ballot -- statewide, if necessary.

    The Legislature should look into making it easier for former felons to have their right to vote restored.

    County elections supervisors should be elected on a non-partisan basis. State and local canvassing board members should take no part in campaign activity for others and should disqualify themselves in any election cycle in which they are candidates.

    Elections supervisors should be able to appeal to the state for more money than county commissions may want to budget, just like sheriffs.

    For a better Florida: An annual preview of the legislative session

    Little spared in Bush's proposed budget cuts (February 25, 2001)

    Growing out of control (February 25, 2001)

    The university system teetering on the edge (February 18, 2001)

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