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Florida Dumps Touch-Screen Voting Machines

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With one large bill passed in the state Legislature, Florida tried to slam the door on a rocky electoral past and bared itself for more elections scrutiny.

Touch-screen voting machines used in 15 counties will soon be discarded for a verifiable paper-trail system, a move borne out of both the political climate and real concerns that the machines are unreliable.

And, ignoring national party threats and angering other states, Florida will likely be the fourth state to choose the presidential nominees next January.

Voters in 15 counties — comprising about 50 percent of the Florida electorate — will make that choice on touch-screen machines because there won't be enough time to make the changeover before the Jan. 29 vote. Supervisors of elections in those counties will be gearing up for the changeover to optical-scan systems while conducting the election using technology on the way out.

"For the general election it all should be in place," Gov. Charlie Crist said Saturday. He is expected to sign the bill (HB 537) in the next month or so. "Would I rather it be sooner than later? Sure I would. But I'm darn glad it's going to happen now."

Before Florida reaches what Secretary of State Kurt Browning called the "end of the line" of elections evolution — a verifiable paper trail — it has decided to brighten the national spotlight that was first cast on it in 2000, and switched back on in November in a still-disputed congressional race.

"Hopefully the presidential primary won't be a repeat of our election but if we get our investigation completed in time that will help us not only find out what happened in November but hopefully prevent it from happening in January," said David Kochman, a spokesman for Democrat Christine Jennings, who is still contesting her 369-vote defeat to Republican Vern Buchanan in District 13.

Touch-screen voting machines in Sarasota County recorded over 18,000 ballots without a selection in the congressional race. That high rate of "undervotes" — about 10 percent higher than in surrounding counties — and voter testimony of difficulty with the machines led Jennings to challenge the race. A congressional task force is now investigating if something went wrong with the machines. Browning has consistently said — while he doesn't think anything went wrong — the race inspired Crist, a Republican, to take up the rallying cry often heard from Democrats that each ballot needs a verifiable paper trail.

Buchanan's attorney, Hayden Dempsey, also believes the machines work but, like Browning, said the changeover was inspired by the political climate and a crisis of confidence.

"From a voting system standpoint it's not something that needed to be done," Dempsey said. "There's no evidence than any machine in Florida malfunctioned in the last election cycle."

The sales of touch-screen machines is "virtually dead across the U.S.," said Browning. The presidential primary in January will be their last gasp in Florida — except for the next few years when disabled voters will still have to use them.

Florida's voting challenges don't stop with the primary. Browning and elections officials said there is much to be done to comply with the requirements of the bill in time for the 2008 general election — likely to be the largest ever in the state.

"Honestly as soon as this bill passed it just kind of hit me very quickly," Browning said. "Oh my gosh, what does that mean for us? It's a huge task to get ready for the (2008) election."

During testimony leading up to the bill's passage, supervisors of elections told lawmakers to keep in mind all the changes that will have to be made when 2008 rolls around. They wanted to make sure that in the quest to reform elections in Florida, lawmakers wouldn't do too much too fast — and end up setting the state up for more controversy in 2008.

Supervisors are particularly concerned about implementing ballot-on-demand technology, which enables polling places to produce paper ballots when they are requested, said Ron Labasky, general counsel for the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. The touch-screen machines have been useful for early voting because they can produce a number of different ballot styles. And ballot-on-demand has never been used other than for absentee ballots.

"There's a tremendous amount to be done," said Ron Labasky, general counsel for the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. "It's going to be a learning experience for us as well as the public."