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Local and state officials are urging lawmakers to put money into changing Florida's voting system.
By EDIE GROSS
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 21, 2000
Chad -- pregnant, dimpled, hanging or otherwise -- can take a hike, say local and state officials who intend to steer Florida's voting systems away from those insidious flecks of paper left behind when a ballot is punched.
Pinellas County commissioners, members of the local legislative delegation and others with lobbying ability say they will urge the Legislature next year to fund more advanced -- and hopefully more accurate -- voting systems for Florida's 67 counties.
"Obviously, it's a high-ticket item, but I don't think we can not address this issue. Whatever the cost, we need to modernize and avoid the chad concept," said Pinellas County Commissioner Bob Stewart. "I think chad becomes history at whatever the cost."
The punch-card ballots, used for at least the past 20 years in at least two dozen Florida counties, including Pinellas and Hillsborough, caused an uproar this year in the closest presidential race in recent history.
Counties doing hand recounts are in a quandary over how to count the holes where the chad has not completely fallen out. Some party officials have taken to collecting the chad littering the recount rooms as evidence that the ballots fall apart the more they are handled.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, called this year's election mess a "travesty" that could be avoided with a more modern and standardized way of voting across the state. The secretary of state's office certifies voting equipment for use in Florida, but county officials can decide on their own which kind of equipment to buy.
"The Legislature needs to provide some leadership and come up with some standardized formats, and then come up with funding to help the counties buy them," he said. "I think we need to say, "It's time to come into the 21st century.' We need to give these counties some help."
On Friday, the Florida Association of Counties put forth its priorities for the 2001 legislative session. Chief among them is an election reform package that includes standardized ballots, voting and tabulation machines, said Mary Kay Cariseo, the association's executive director.
While troubles with paper ballots have always existed, the extra scrutiny focused on them this year requires immediate attention, Cariseo said.
"The issues that have come up have probably been around some time. At the local level we have close elections all the time," she said. "Until we get something as critical as the president of the United States, the issue just doesn't come to the surface."
The Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections has been eyeing a touch-screen voting system created by Dallas-based Global Election Systems Inc., said Pam Iorio, president of the group and Hillsborough County's elections supervisor.
The system is not approved for use in Florida just yet but is used in some counties in North Carolina, Tennessee, Colorado, California, Texas and Nebraska.
The system allows voters to change their minds but does not permit double-voting -- a problem that disqualified more than 19,000 ballots in Palm Beach County this year when voters inadvertently punched two choices for president.
The down side is the price. The touch-screen equipment costs about $3,500 per voting booth.
"One of the reasons big counties in Florida, like Hillsborough, Pinellas and Broward, have not moved off punch cards is we're talking $10-million," Iorio said. "We know we need to move off punch cards. But we need to do our homework and if it's funded locally, we need to make our case to our local commissions."
Some Florida counties have moved to optical scanners, where voters darken circles similar to those on standardized tests. But, Iorio cautions, that technology still uses a paper ballot and creates questions of voter intent: Some voters mark an X or a check mark next to the circle instead of coloring it in.
Larry Ensminger, vice president of corporate development for Global Election Systems, said his company is prepared to pitch its equipment to Florida once the brouhaha dies down.
Said Ensminger: "We don't even have anybody in the company named Chad."