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3 most-populous counties push for ballot paper trail

By Connie Piloto, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 27, 2004

WEST PALM BEACH Florida's three most populous counties took a rare, unified stance Monday, calling for the state legislature to require a ballot-by-ballot paper record of votes cast on electronic voting machines.

Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade county commissioners dissatisfied after spending millions on touch-screen voting machines since the tumultuous 2000 presidential election agreed paper printouts are the only way to instill public confidence in touch-screen ballots.

The tri-county coalition voted unanimously to send state legislators a letter endorsing a paper trail.

"I hope this gets the legislative body to understand what we're concerned about," said Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson, who raised the issue at a meeting Monday.

There has been considerable reason for worry. When the touch-screen machines debuted in 2002 Florida gubernatorial elections, the results were tainted by many non-votes tallied in Broward and Miami-Dade. The problem surfaced again in a Jan. 6 special election for a Broward and Palm Beach county state House seat.

That race was decided by 12 votes with 137 voters casting blank ballots, or "under-votes."

"Nobody can believe that 137 people went to the last election and decided not to vote," Aaronson said. "They didn't go in there to wait for a bus."

The contested results prompted Palm Beach County commissioners to vote for a statewide mandate for paper voting receipts.

Monday's tri-county push for a paper trail comes just 10 months before the presidential election, making it highly unlikely that new equipment would be ready in time.

But timing wasn't an issue Monday. "We need to take a position," said Broward County Mayor Ilene Lieberman. "We need... paper receipts."

The move faces considerable resistance. Fifteen Florida counties, including Martin, have switched to paperless touch-screen voting systems since punch cards fell from favor after the 2000 election. Many of Florida's county election supervisors say touch screens work fine, that there's no need for a paper record. Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood, the state's top elections official, said she supports the supervisors' position.

The touch screens used in Palm Beach County already warn voters three times before they can cast a blank ballot. And defenders of paperless voting say the machines are rigorously tested and have multiple safeguards against errors and tampering. They say adding printers would create new costs and delays and place an additional burden on poll workers to fix inevitable paper jams and other printer problems.

But critics claim the electronic systems still are susceptible to errors and fraud that can't be detected without a backup paper record. Proponents argue the printouts would reduce voter confusion in the polling place.

Most paper-trail proposals call for a printout of a voter's ions that the voter could verify before casting an electronic ballot. To prevent tampering, the printout would be displayed behind glass or plastic so the voter could not touch it. After an electronic vote is cast, the paper record would feed into a locked box and could serve as a backup if questions arose about an election.

Sequoia Voting Systems, which made Palm Beach County's touch screens, is developing a printer that it says would add about $500 to the cost of a voting machine about $2.5 million for the county's 5,000 machines. But the printers have not yet been certified by federal or state authorities, which makes it nearly impossible to have them ready for Florida's fall elections.

"It's not too big a price to pay," Aaronson said. "We spent 36 days in 2000 trying to figure out who won the election. How much money did that cost us?"


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