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Absentee landslide might lead to machine reform
Published August 5, 2004

by Michael Mayo in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel
In honor of the approaching Aug. 31 primary and Nov. 2 presidential election, a South Florida voter's soliloquy:

To absentee or not to absentee, that is the question.

Whether 'tis nobler for the electorate

To suffer the paperless doubts of mischievous touch-screens,

Or to take pencils against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, amend them.

To vote, to count, perchance to dream

That your ballot doesn't disappear into thin air

Or beneath a pile in the election office mailroom.

OK, forget the Shakespearean language, here it is in plain English: imperfect punch-card balloting is gone, but its imperfect replacement is still a distrusted work-in-progress, giving many voters the heebie-jeebies.

Which explains why so many are taking a protest route of sorts, requesting absentee ballots that leave a verifiable paper record.

Consider it a vote about the vote. The more people who use mail ballots will make it harder for state officials to shrug off concerns about electronic voting machines and could spur much-needed fine-tuning. The two most necessary changes: the addition of voter-verified paper receipts inside the machines that can be used for recounts and a "none of the above" option for all ballot items to clarify undervotes.

Don't worry about causing logistical headaches for local elections officials. There's a bigger battle at stake. Call 954-357-7055 today and request your absentee ballots for both elections. And notify your local, state and federal representatives that you intend to keep voting this way until you see meaningful reform in the high-tech systems.

The Broward elections office has fielded more than 20,500 requests for absentee ballots for the Aug. 31 primary. The Palm Beach County elections office recently ran out of absentee request forms and had to print more because of high demand.

Perhaps this is because of looser rules that allow mail balloting for all voters for any reason, not just those who will be out of town. But it also stems from a lack of confidence in the touch-screen machines. I've heard from many readers telling me they're going to vote absentee for this reason.

Of course, absentee voting is no foolproof method. Just look at the tray of 268 valid ballots lost by Miriam Oliphant's office during the September 2002 primary. Or the fraudulent absentee ballots used to pull off tainted elections in Miami in the 1980s. There's always the chance that insufficient postage or a post-office glitch might prevent your vote from counting.

But at least the votes don't simply disappear into electronic ether.

This is unlike the touch-screen computer systems used in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, which do not produce a voter-verified paper trail. It's a matter of faith that the way you cast your ballot will be the way the machine regurgitates it later.

In other words, if you vote for Candidate A, the machine indicates to you you're voting for Candidate A, but computer experts say nefarious coding could result in the vote being scrambled to Candidate B or a no-vote.

And if it's a close race, there's no way to do a meaningful recount.

This was the absurd situation in a January special election to fill a state House seat in Broward and Palm Beach. Ellyn Bogdanoff's winning margin was 12 votes, from roughly 10,000 votes cast. Curiously, on a one-race ballot, there were 137 no-votes recorded by the electronic machines. That means 137 people supposedly made a trip to the polls to vote for nobody.

At the time, state law called for a manual recount of flawed ballots when the margin was less than a quarter percent. But with these machines, it was impossible. There was nothing to recount or examine. The audit logs printed from each machine were useless for the task. The canvassing board sat around, twiddled its thumbs and asked for legal advice.

The state's lame response: changing the law to scrap manual recounts on electronic machines.

Our only sensible response: voting with pencil and paper until machine votes have a verifiable trail and can be properly recounted.

An absentee ballot landslide might be just the wake-up call Tallahassee needs.

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