TALLAHASSEE — When Gov. Charlie Crist signed the law in 2007 that abolished touch screen voting in Florida, one exception remained.
Despite the machines' reputation for untrustworthiness, they would stay online through the 2012 elections for voters who are blind or have other physical disabilities.
By then, it was hoped, Florida would bless a paper ballot system accessible to the disabled, and touch screens would finally be a relic of elections past, like dimpled chad.
But now that 2012 is approaching, elections supervisors want to keep using touch screens for four more years, through 2016, or the next two presidential elections.
It looks like the Legislature is about to grant their wish, much to the frustration of Secretary of State Kurt Browning, the state's chief elections official.
The reason: money.
"The counties are hurting, and we're just asking to push this off," said Susan Gill, elections supervisor in Citrus County.
Counties say it will cost them $35 million to replace those touch screens. That's not counting the mountain of debt they're still paying from the now-discarded, pricey electronic units that were supposed to be the long-term replacement for punch card voting.
"It is a significant amount of money, obviously, in this economic climate," said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who until recently chaired the Senate elections panel.
Browning, a former Pasco County elections supervisor, was once a leading advocate of touch screen voting. He says it's ironic that he now chides counties for seeking to continue using touch screens, which provide audio ballots to blind voters who wear headphones.
"They're whining," Browning said of elections supervisors. "They've known this law has been on the books since 2007, and they will have had five years to comply with this change."
Pinellas and Hillsborough are two of the four counties that use AutoMARK, the only approved paper ballot system in Florida that is accessible to the disabled. (The other two are Sarasota and Duval.) AutoMARK is owned by ES&S, the nation's biggest vendor of voting equipment.
The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the four-year delay, noting that voters with disabilities have waited long enough already to get the same paper ballot security that other voters enjoy.
"I would urge you not to leave a portion of our community behind. This is a civil rights issue. It's a matter of equal treatment under the law," Courtney Strickland of the ACLU told the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee.
According to a statewide survey by elections supervisors, 18,000 voters used disability equipment in 2008.
But some groups that speak for the disabled support the four-year extension. They don't like the AutoMARK system; they want one that allows disabled citizens to vote unassisted.
"It is our opinion that there is not now on the market a voting device for marking paper ballots that meets the requirements of the Help America Vote Act (or) the Americans with Disabilities Act," said Jim Dickson of the American Association of People with Disabilities.
The four-year delay on replacing touch screens is tucked inside the Department of State's must-pass elections bill (SB 900).
This could put Crist in a tight spot: Will the governor who was eager to get rid of touch screens bow to the counties' demands for financial relief and let the machines stay in use four more years? Or will he stand by Browning, his handpicked elections expert?
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.