By LUCY MORGAN and THOMAS C. TOBIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2001
TALLAHASSEE -- Amid handshakes and congratulations, Florida legislators moved Friday to leave behind the infamous 2000 election with a bill that calls for better voting machines and new rules designed to lessen voters' confusion and ensure their ballots will be counted.
The measure, approved by all but two of the state's 160 legislators, eliminates punch cards, hanging chads, butterfly ballots, late-night recounts and other relics of a statistical tie in the November presidential race that exposed serious flaws in Florida's election system.
"It takes a catastrophe to get things repaired and that's what we've seen here," said Susan MacManus, a Tampa professor and political commentator who chairs the Florida Elections Commission. The legislation, she said, addresses the concerns in a recent survey of Floridians, who overwhelmingly favored a uniform election system and more education to cut down on errors that led to many problems.
"We have, I think, a world-class elections law," said Gov. Jeb Bush, whose brother was sent to the White House in Florida's chaotic election recount. "We took advantage of the scrutiny the state got and rather than trying to relive the past, we've been focusing on making sure 2002 looks a lot different."
Many of the recommendations included in the bill were suggested by a task force Bush appointed shortly after the election battle. Jim Smith, a former secretary of state and attorney general, served as co-chairman of the task force. On Friday he praised the bill as "the most important piece of election reform ever adopted in Florida," and predicted it will become a model for the country.
Among the key provisions of the bill: the elimination of punch card ballots, paper ballots and mechanical lever machines. The measure opens the way for 41 of the state's 67 counties to buy new voting systems like the optical scanning system used in 26 counties.
That system -- already in use in Citrus and Hernando counties -- rejects an erroneous ballot while the voter is still present and can fill out a new ballot. The law also allows counties to move to computer touch screen voting systems once those systems gain state approval.
Both systems, unlike punch cards, have similarities to mundane tasks that are familiar to the public. Optical scan ballots are filled in much like lottery cards or answers in a standardized test. Voting on a touch screen is similar to using an ATM or even an electronic gambling machine.
Election officials in the punch card counties of Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco will spend the next few months shopping for new systems, then getting approval from their county commissions.
Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Pam Iorio, believing touch screens will be better and cheaper in a few years, is making plans to purchase an optical scan system by January 2002. Pinellas supervisor Deborah Clark, convinced that optical scan ballots are not much better than punch cards, is leaning toward touch screens.
Meanwhile, the companies that make both systems have been gearing up since the post-election mess that gave George W. Bush the presidency with a 537-vote victory in Florida and showed the need for reform.
"Our world changed on Nov. 7, 2000. The dynamics of the industry changed -- everything about it changed," said Larry Ensminger, vice president of corporate development for Global Election Systems, a Texas company that provides optical scan machines and ballots in 17 Florida counties and also manufactures two touch screen systems that have yet to be approved in the state.
The company has 100 employees working one shift but is prepared to hire more people and fill three shifts if the demand is there, Ensminger said.
In a first for Florida, the new legislation gives state money to counties for elections equipment: a total of $24-million to be split according to population.
In addition, the bill provides $6-million to pay for voter education and $2-million to create a statewide voter list designed to help prevent fraud or double voting.
Given the unique ways that thousands of Floridians marked their ballots last November, the money for voter education seemed every bit as important as the money for new machines. "More important," said Clark, the Pinellas supervisor.
"We're not teaching people the mechanics of voting and we saw that in the last election," said MacManus, who has long pushed to have voter instruction in high schools.
Most counties now using outdated systems likely will go to optical scan machines rather than make the jump to touch screens. The main reason is cost. In Pinellas, for example, the estimates for an optical scan system came in at $3-million to $5-million recently, compared with $12-million to $15-million for touch screens.
But Clark, the elections supervisor, believes the touch screen starts to look better in later years because the machines don't use paper, which brings down the operating cost. She estimates it would cost Pinellas $260,000 per election to operate an optical scan system, compared with about $16,000 for a touch screen system.
Besides, Clark said, Pinellas residents who have tried both systems in recent hands-on surveys have overwhelmingly preferred touch screens. "They were coming up and saying, "When are we getting this?' "
Election officials are leaning the same way in the neighboring state of Georgia, where the 2000 election prompted the General Assembly to make sweeping election reforms last month.
Among the measures was a call for a uniform voting system by 2004, and Secretary of State Cathy Cox is pushing for touch screens rather than optical scan systems.
"It's last generation's equipment," said Cox spokesman Chris Riggall.
A review of "undervotes" -- where no vote was recorded for the presidential race -- found 21 Georgia counties with optical scan equipment had undervotes of 5 percent or more. One county had an undervote rate of 15 percent.
An in-depth review found the problem was worse in predominantly black precincts -- worse than in those counties with punch card systems. Georgia officials also found that it didn't matter which kind of optical scan system was involved.
"What that told us is when you line up all the systems we have in operation now, this is not a sterling example of where we want the entire state to be," said Riggall, who added the same is not necessarily true for other states.
Indeed, Florida counties with optical scan systems had far fewer instances of under votes and "over votes," where voters chose more than one candidate.
Also, a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology found that optical scan systems had some of the the lowest error rates of any system in use today.