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Elections chief may consider hand counting, mail-in votes

By George Bennett

Palm Beach Post Saturday, September 17, 2005

Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Arthur Anderson isn't ruling out the possibility of tallying the county's 2006 ballots by hand or conducting the election entirely through the mail, even though both ideas appear to run afoul of state law.

The hand-count and mail ideas came up Thursday when Anderson convened the first meeting of an elections technology advisory panel that will advise him on the best voting system for Palm Beach County.

The county has used paperless electronic touch-screen voting machines since 2002. Anderson, who campaigned last year as an advocate of a ballot "paper trail," says it's too late to procure any long-term replacement system before the 2006 elections.

But he also said the technology panel should consider "interim strategies" that could be used next year.

The Palm Beach Coalition for Election Reform, a group of electronic voting foes that has enjoyed close ties to Anderson since his campaign last year, included the hand-count idea in a written proposal it gave the elections chief, but did not distribute to members of the technology panel.

The group ultimately favors replacing touch screens with optical scanners in each precinct, but says in the interim paper ballots could be counted by hand at each of the county's approximately 500 polling places, then run through an optical scanner at the main elections office.

The proposal doesn't specify what would happen if the hand and machine totals differ.

The coalition's proposal concedes the hand-count idea is likely to be considered illegal by "many elections officials" because it doesn't provide a way for voters to identify and correct errors before casting their ballots.

After thousands of Florida voters failed to properly mark their ballots in the close 2000 presidential election, state law was changed to require that each polling place include technology that warns of possible mistakes.

Both touch screens and optical scanners prevent voters from choosing too many candidates in a race, a phenomenon known as an overvote.

Touch screens also alert voters when they fail to make a ion in a race, called an undervote.

Taking away technology that helps voters fix errors "would be a concern," Anderson said.

He said he hadn't yet sorted out details and legal questions associated with a hand count and wasn't ready to reject the idea.

"It merits consideration," Anderson said.

Anderson briefly mentioned the possibility of a mail-in election at Thursday's meeting.

A Florida statute allows a mail election only for referendums and not for races with candidates. But Anderson said he'd pursue the idea if he found strong sentiment for it.

Members of the Coalition for Election Reform also voiced support for the mail-in idea.

Coalition co-founder Susan Van Houten said any paper-based system, even one that doesn't give voters the chance to identify and correct errors, is preferable to a paperless one.

Several coalition members were active in Anderson's successful campaign last year to unseat Theresa LePore.

Anderson hired a coalition member to be his administrative assistant this year and invited the group to fill one of the seats on the technology advisory panel.

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