Florida Moves to End Touch-Screen Voting

New York Times 1 February 2007 front page

Gov. Charlie Crist today announced plans today to abandon the touch-screen voting machines that many of Florida's largest counties installed after the disputed 2000 presidential election, instead adopting a statewide system of casting paper ballots counted by scanning machines.

Voting experts said Florida's move, coupled with new federal voting legislation expected this year, could largely signal the death knell for the paperless electronic machines. If as expected the Florida Legislature approves the $32 million cost of the change, in fact, it will be the nation's biggest repudiation yet of touch-screen voting, which was widely adopted after the 2000 recount as a state-of-the-art means of restoring confidence that everyone's vote would count.

Several counties around the country, including Cuyahoga in Ohio and Sarasota in Florida, have exchanged touch-screen machines for others that provide a paper trail. But Florida could become the first state that invested heavily in recent rush to touch screens to reject them so sweepingly.

"Florida is like a synonym for election problems; it's the Bermuda Triangle of elections," said Warren Stewart, policy director of VoteTrust USA, a nonprofit group that has advocated optical scanners as more reliable than touch screens. "For Florida to be clearly contemplating moving away from touch screens to the greatest extent possible is truly significant."

Other states that rushed to buy the touch screens are also starting to move in that direction. Earlier this week, the Virginia state senate passed a bill that would phase out the touch-screen machines as they wear out and replace them with optical scanners. The Maryland Legislature also seems determined to order a switch from the paperless touch screens, although it is not clear yet whether it will require the use of optical scanners or just allow paper printers to be added to the touch screens.

And on Monday, Representative Rush Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, plans to introduce a bill in Congress that would require all voting machines nationwide to produce paper records through which voters can verify that their ballots were recorded correctly. Mr. Holt's bill would also substantially toughen the requirements for the touch-screen machines that have printers, and experts say this also could give more impetus to the shift toward the optical scanning systems.

Mr. Crist, a Republican, was at times drowned out by whoops and applause when he announced his plan at a civic center in Palm Beach County, the epicenter of the 2000 election standoff and home of the infamous "butterfly ballot" that confused large numbers of voters. The touch screens had replaced the punch-card systems that became infamous that year.

"You should, when you go vote, be able to have a record of it," Mr. Crist told a few hundred mostly older citizens at the South County Civic Center in Delray Beach, where thousands of residents accidentally voted for Patrick J. Buchanan in 2000 instead of Al Gore because of the confusing ballot design. "That's all we're proposing today. It's not very complicated; it is in fact common sense. Most importantly, it is the right thing to do."

Mr. Crist's renunciation of touch-screen voting, just one month after he replaced Jeb Bush as governor of the nation's fourth-largest state, suggested that the fight for paper voting records, long a pet project of Democrats, might now become more bipartisan. Mr. Crist made the announcement with Robert Wexler, a Democratic congressman from Boca Raton, who has ardently led the movement here and in Congress for a paper voting record and has frequently attacked Republicans along the way.

"I support this plan 100 percent," Mr. Wexler said before introducing Mr. Crist. "This governor means what he says, and he's coming to Tallahassee and he's spreading the message throughout Florida that this isn't about Republican or Democrat, it's not about this ideology or that; it's about unifying people and doing what's right for the people of Florida."

The 15 counties that adopted touch-screen voting in recent years, including Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Hillsborough, would move to optical-scan voting under the proposal before the presidential election of 2008. The plan would, however, give them the option of using touch-screen machines during the state's two-week early voting period that precedes Election Day, if the machines are modified to provide a paper trail. Those counties represent 54 percent of the state's registered voters.

Mr. Crist said the county election supervisors would explore how to make optical-scan voting easier for blind people and for those who speak foreign languages. In some cases, they are able to vote without assistance on the electronic touch-screen machines.

Asked how he felt about discarding tens of millions of dollars worth of touch-screen machines just years after they were acquired, Mr. Crist said: "The price of freedom is not cheap. The importance of a democratic system of voting that we can trust, that we can have confidence is, is incredibly important."

Election experts estimate that the paperless electronic machines were used by about 30 percent of voters nationwide in the 2006 elections. But the reliability of the machines has increasingly come under scrutiny, as has the difficulty of conducting recounts without a paper trail. Federal technology experts concluded late last year that paperless touch-screen machines could not be secured from tampering.

Some states had bought early versions of the paperless machines before the 2000 recount, and one of them, New Mexico, switched last year to optical scanners. But most of the machines in other states were purchased with federal money provided under a 2002 law that required states to upgrade from old punch-card and lever systems.

A recent survey by Election Data Services, a Washington consulting firm, estimated that 36 percent of the nation's counties have bought electronic machines, including some with printers attached, while 56 percent have the optical scanning systems.

In New Jersey, Mr. Holt said his bill would require the return to paper ballots by next year's presidential primaries, and it would authorize $300 million in federal money to upgrade the machines. Some state and county election officials say it could be difficult to make such sweeping changes by then.

Mr. Holt challenged that assumption. "It depends on how badly we want to do it," he said. "The public is getting very impatient here."

In Sarasota County, Fla., last November, more than 18,000 voters who used touch-screen machines did not have their vote recorded in the close Congressional race between Vern Buchanan, the Republican, and Christine Jennings, the Democrat. Mr. Buchanan took office last month after a recount gave him a 369-vote victory margin, but Ms. Jennings has sued. Whether the problems were a result of poor ballot design or machine malfunction remains a mystery.

Former Governor Bush, President Bush's younger brother, generally defended touch-screen voting during his tenure and said skeptics had fallen prey to "conspiracy theories." But while he vocally defended touch-screen machines leading up to the 2004 presidential election, the Republican Party of Florida sent out flyers urging voters to use absentee ballots because state officials "do not have a paper ballot to verify your vote."

Mr. Stewart, the critic from VoteTrust USA, said cost concerns also helped fuel the shift to optical scanners, because fewer of the machines will need to be purchased. But Kimball W. Brace, the president of Election Data Services, said optical scanning systems have had a slightly higher rate of voter error than the touch screen ones.

Abby Goodnough reported from Delray Beach, and Christopher Drew from New York.

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