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Ballot questions remain after dress rehearsal

Palm Beach Post Editorial
Monday, March 15, 2004

By all appearances, Tuesday's election was a success in Florida. Most polling places opened on time, most voters cast ballots without incident, and no candidates complained that all votes weren't counted. But minor problems inched into view, raising questions about electronic touch-screen systems that go beyond the issue of paper trails. And after 2000, any minor problem in Florida is potentially a major problem.
One problem election supervisors can do something about before the Aug. 31 primary and November presidential election is poll-worker training. No voters should have lost an opportunity to cast ballots in the Democratic presidential primary because poll workers programmed their cards incorrectly, but it happened. No voter should have been denied a write-in ballot, but it happened. No blind voter should have been compelled to sue because poll workers fumbled with an audio ballot, but it happened.

Theresa LePore, Palm Beach County's supervisor of elections, blames human error and promises "serious trouble" for poll workers who don't know how to set up ballots for the blind. Her promise is good, but the issue had been raised before the election. One solution may be to recruit younger poll workers who are more comfortable with technology. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the machines still cause some older poll workers to get flustered.

As politicians in Washington, Florida and California continue to play on voter concerns about electronic touch-screen systems, it would help if someone could explain why so many voters go to the polls but cast no ballot. It happened again last week in Atlantis, which has only one precinct. In the small, walled community, 42 blanks were counted out of 864 ballots cast in one race. Though candidate Eric Mangione's protest did nothing to change the outcome, it is disconcerting to see a race decided by four votes and 42 blanks. Could it be the touch-screen system? No one knows. Ms. LePore suggested letting voters "I choose not to vote in this race." Legislators, concerned about losing to a phantom, did not go along.

The problems don't stop at electronic voting. In Florida's Panhandle, Bay County found itself recounting ballots after a printer error on a fill-in-the-oval optical scan ballot caused votes for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry to be counted for Dick Gephardt, who had ped out of the race. The error forced the ballot to be out of alignment. The problem is another reason to support paper ballots, Bay County Elections Supervisor Mark Andersen said. The paper provided a record he could eyeball to determine voter intent.

But members of Congress who want a paper trail in place by November waited too long. So voters deserve answers now to questions raised by every new election before Florida finds itself on the national stage again.

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