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Elections chief: End punch card system

Pam Iorio wants to test touch screens and optical scan ballots. County commissioners want to know who will pay.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 2000

TAMPA -- If Pam Iorio has her way, Hillsborough County voters never again will punch a stylus through cardboard or dust bits of chad from the back of a ballot in a countywide election.

Iorio, Hillsborough's supervisor of elections, said Wednesday that the time has come to modernize elections by scrapping the county's 4,000 Votomatic machines and purchasing an optical scan or touch-screen voting system at a cost of $8-million to $12-million.

Iorio believes that's a small price to pay to preserve voter confidence.

"With what's appeared in the presidential election with hanging chads and dimples and recounts, people could lose confidence in future elections," she told the St. Petersburg Times Wednesday afternoon. "You have to have confidence. That's paramount."

Addressing county commissioners earlier in the day, Iorio, president of the Florida Association of Supervisors of Elections, said she has set a 2002 deadline to replace the Votomatic punch card system, whose idiosyncrasies have been blamed for throwing the presidential election into a recount-and-sue stalemate.

"I think we can say in Hillsborough County, we should not conduct another election on the punch card system," Iorio said.

Commissioners responded with a unanimous vote to refer to state and federal legislators the general question of election reform -- and the specific question of who will pay for it.

The Votomatic, in which voters stab a stylus through circles adjacent to candidates' names, was introduced in Hillsborough County in 1976. The system replaced Shoup 2.5 Lever machines, in which voters pulled a big lever to close a curtain behind them, then flicked off little levers beside candidates' names.

The Lever machines, in use here for four decades, counted votes like an odometer, one after another per machine. But once the votes were recorded, the counter returned to zero, making a recount impossible.

The Votomatic has been inexpensive to maintain, Iorio said. It was purchased 25 years ago for the 1976 Ford-Carter presidential election and is still around. It is regarded as accurate as long it is well-maintained and the voter punches the ballot cleanly.

"But it has its deficiencies," Iorio said. "The voter can overvote and, more significantly, we've reached the limit on how many candidates can be placed on a Votomatic ballot."

A 1998 constitutional amendment made qualifying for minor-party candidates in Florida easier, resulting in Hillsborough's longest ballot ever. Ten presidential candidates (including two Socialists and one from the Workers World Party) crowded onto the ballot. They were joined by seven candidates for U.S. senator, including three who represented no party.

The glut led to the "butterfly ballot" problems in Palm Beach County and to the use elsewhere of second-page ballots, where voters tend to vote twice in one race.

Iorio favors going to an optical scan system, at a cost of $8-million to $10-million, or to a touch-screen computer system, with a $10-million to $12-million price tag.

Optical scan ballots, used in Polk, Hernando, Orange and Manatee counties, are reminiscent of SAT tests. Voters use a marker to shade in a bubble next to a candidate's name on a paper ballot. A voter feeds the ballot into an optical reader when finished; the scanner spits out any ballot with overvotes, allowing an opportunity for the voter to start fresh.

One problem: The scanner might ignore partly shaded bubbles where voters marked their ballots with a check-mark or an "X." And Iorio isn't sure the optical scan system is the technology of the future.

She prefers touch-screen computers, now in use in California but so far not certified for use by Florida's Division of Elections.

A voter sees one race at a time on a computer screen, touches a candidate's name to vote, then sees a check appear by that name. A prompt takes the voter to the next race or asks a voter if he meant to skip a race. That feature would prevent the kind of controversy seen around the state last month when thousands of voters seemed to create a chad for neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore.

The beauty of the touch-screen system is in the programming. Iorio had to create 82 separate ballots to cover all races in the county this year. With a touch screen, the differences are simply programmed into a central computer, along with ballots in other languages, if needed. Voter swipe registration cards across a scanner to view the ballot.

"People say voters won't be comfortable with the technology," Iorio said. "But I think they're easier to use than the punch card system."

Iorio's plan is to test both new systems in diverse communities around the county, from Hispanic precincts to predominantly elderly precincts, to test efficiency and measure acceptance, then lobby county commissioners for financing.

"The state of Florida did not come through this election so well, but I think we need to take something positive from it," Iorio said. "That's modernization.

"I view this as an opportunity for progress."

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