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Touch-screens dealt a blow

BY GARY FINEOUT Miami Herald  05 August 2004


TALLAHASSEE - While state election officials publicly proclaim their faith in touch-screen voting machines in the midst of criticism, their own reports may have been the first to highlight potential shortcomings in the technology more than 18 months ago.

In January 2003, state election officials reported that there was a higher rate of so-called undervotes among voters using the ATM-style equipment than those voters who mark paper ballots and feed them into an optical scanner.

At the time, the Florida Division of Elections compiled a detailed report that looked at how each county's voting equipment performed during the 2002 general election, when Gov. Jeb Bush defeated Democratic challenger Bill McBride. Bush received 2.85 million votes to McBride's 2.2 million votes.

The report shows that more than 44,000 votes weren't counted in the governor's race because of undervotes, overvotes and problems with absentee ballots. Of that total, about 34,000 were undervotes in which voters apparently failed to make a choice at all.

Many election officials maintain that there is no way to tell for sure why someone chooses not to vote in a particular race or election contest. But the state report, which was sent to Bush and the Florida Legislature, shows that counties that used touch-screen machines reported a higher percentage of undervotes than counties that rely on optical scanner machines.

The undervote rate for the 52 counties that used optical scanners was 0.33 percent of all votes cast, compared to 0.92 percent for the 15 counties that use touch-screen machines. More than 4,600 Miami-Dade voters, or 0.91 percent of those who voted, did not cast a ballot in the governor's race. In Broward the number was about 4,000, or 0.90 percent.

For touch-screen critics, the numbers reinforce their suspicions about the machines, since touch-screen machines warn voters if they have failed to vote in any race, while optical scanner machines don't warn when there is more than one race on the ballot.

'The fact that our undervote report is three times lower, which is without a warning, just adds to the question of, `What's going on here?' '' said Ion Sancho, supervisor of elections in Leon County, which uses optical scan machines.

But state officials point out that the report also shows that in 2002, Florida achieved a dramatic reduction in the number of votes that weren't counted compared to the 2000 presidential election.

The overall percentage of votes that weren't counted which includes overvotes and undervotes went from nearly 3 percent in 2000 to less than 1 percent two years later.

The report also shows that touch-screen machines allowed zero overvotes, where a voter accidentally s more than one candidate in a race.

A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Glenda Hood contended the undervote difference between touch-screen machines and optical scanners was insignificant.

''Historically, the rates are at an all-time low,'' Jenny Nash said. ``The rates may be different but it's still less than 1 percent.''

For weeks, critics of touch-screen machines have seized on reports of glitches and lost data as a reason why Hood or Bush should demand a statewide audit of voting systems in Florida.

They have also cited a recent report that showed that, in the March 2004 presidential primary, there was a higher percentage of undervotes in counties that use touch-screen machines compared to those that rely on optical scanners.

Some of the most constant critics have been Democratic politicians, which has prompted Bush to complain that those attacking the machines are partisans bent on motivating voters to defeat his brother, President Bush.

Today in Tallahassee, Senate Democratic Leader Ron Klein and House Democratic Leader Doug Wiles plan to discuss ways to ``restore voter confidence.''

Klein said Wednesday that he was unaware of the 2003 report, but the Boca Raton Democrat said it reinforces the concerns that he has about voting systems in Florida.

''It seems unlikely that there would be a 3-1 margin between a community that has optical scan versus one with a touch-screen,'' said Klein.

Seth Kaplan, a spokesman for Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Constance Kaplan, said Wednesday that Kaplan was unfamiliar with the report since it was compiled months before she took over the elections office in the summer of 2003.

Indian River Supervisor of Elections Kay Clem, whose county is one of those that use touch-screen machines, downplayed the significance of the state report. She pointed out that the 2002 election was the first time that many voters first saw the machines. She predicted that as voters become more comfortable with touch-screen voting, the amount of undervotes will decline.

''It was the first time that many of these people have used this equipment,'' Clem said. ``I think we will see a dramatic improvement in undervotes as we go through more elections.''

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