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SOME CAST DOUBTS ON VOTING MACHINES

At Florida Polls, Touch Screens and Crossed Fingers

Florida legislators voted this year to ban new touch-screen voting machines, but the next set of machines won't be ready until November's general election. The state will have to use the controversial machines for Tuesday's primary.
Florida legislators voted this year to ban new touch-screen voting machines, but the next set of machines won't be ready until November's general election. The state will have to use the controversial machines for Tuesday's primary. (By Joe Raedle -- Getty Images)

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 27, 2008

MIAMI -- There will be no "hanging chads" this time around in Florida. The punch-card voting that plagued the 2000 presidential election in the state is long gone.

But with Florida's primary on Tuesday, some in the state are bracing for more potential ballot trouble because the new electronic touch-screen machines in much of the state have aroused doubts of their own.

Florida legislators voted essentially to ban them earlier this year, after confusion in a 2006 congressional contest in Sarasota wound up in court. But the next set of machines will not be ready until the general election in November, forcing election officials to press the controversial machines back into use one more time.

"Every place in Florida with the touch screens should be doing the election supervisors' prayer -- 'Oh, please, God, don't let this election be close,' " said Ion Sancho, election supervisor in Leon County and a longtime critic of the touch-screen machines. "They simply don't work well enough."

The lingering doubts over Florida's machines in part reflect the difficulties of ballot reforms instigated across the country in the wake of the disputed 2000 election. What officials found is that there is no perfect system for counting votes, and the switch to more modern means has not guaranteed reliability.

After Florida's presidential debacle in 2000, in which the outcome of the race came to depend on improvised rules about which marks on a punch card counted as a vote, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002. The law called for the phasing-out of punch-card systems.

The legislation was celebrated as reform, but its flaws soon became apparent here.

"When HAVA pushed all these counties to improve voting systems, people just didn't realize the problems that computers can have," said Alec Yasinsac, a professor of computer science at Florida State University who led part of the state investigation into the Sarasota machines. "It shows what can happen when you try to do a good thing but try to do it too fast."

Florida counties spent millions for new equipment after the 2000 election.

Some bought "optical scan" machines that read voters' marks on paper ballots -- similar to standardized tests and lottery tickets.

But Florida's most populous counties bought the touch-screen systems, which are familiar to anyone who has used an automated teller machine. They were modern but offered no "paper trail" -- in other words, no other record of what voters intended besides the digitized computer records.

It is that lack of a paper trail that contributed to the furor after the 2006 race for the 13th Congressional District. Christine Jennings (D) faced Vern Buchanan (R) for the seat vacated by Katherine Harris, who gained fame for her role presiding over the state's electoral apparatus during the much-disputed 2000 contest.


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