Better audits are sought for voting

With the presidential contest in full swing, voting reform advocates and Florida election officials are trying to develop a better way to monitor election results.

State officials agree that Florida's current audit provisions, adopted last year, don't go far enough. But they are wary of too hasty an overhaul during an election year already complicated by a move to the statewide use of optical scan voting equipment.

"The perception is that our elections process is very chaotic," said Secretary of State Kurt Browning. "I don't think this is the year to be making these type of changes."

The need for improved audits was raised by activists who organized a working group of local supervisors of election and computer and statistics experts that began meeting in December.

The group produced a bill that would replace the post-election audit requirements the Legislature created in 2007 when it jettisoned touch screen voting machines in favor of paper ballots and optical scan equipment.

Those requirements, which won't take effect until July, call for each county to audit results of between 1 and 2 percent of voting precincts for one randomly chosen race on a given ballot.

In its present form, the working group's bill would greatly expand the number of races subject to scrutiny to include every election for federal office, the governor, lieutenant governor, Cabinet members, the Legislature and at least two other statewide elections or referendums. In each county, that means local officials would have to audit as many as 10 to 12 elections in a given cycle.

The process would involve reviewing ballots that had been fed into an optical scan machine. The ballots would be hand counted, and the results compared to those the machine produced.

The method would be risk-based, which means more ballots would be sampled from tight races than blowouts. Although 13 states require post-election audits, only New Jersey has gone the risk-based route. The state created the requirement last year but has yet to put the new rule into practice.

According to many statisticians and those in voting activist circles, the use of optical scan equipment followed up by risk-based audits is the best way to ensure confidence in election results.

Linda Young, a professor of statistics at the University of Florida, was a member of the working group.

"If the race is tight," Young said, "it doesn't take very much error in order to have an election-changing outcome. If it's not at all close, you don't need to look at as many ballots."

Under the current rules, Young said, if the race selected in each county for auditing is a drubbing, reviewing ballots from between 1 and 2 percent of precincts provides little assurance that results in tighter contests are sound.

Kathy Dent is head of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. Like Browning, she would like to see stricter post-election audit rules.

"Otherwise, we are just doing an exercise," said Dent, who is also Sarasota County's election supervisor. "I also believe you need to do it right, and to do it right is probably going to take more time."

Of particular concern to Dent is the number of races the proposal targets. Rather than 10 to 12, she would like to see about three audits at the county level each cycle: one federal race, one state and one local. Also, the bill's complex language should be simplified in some areas, she said.

Dan McCrea, president of the Florida Voters Coalition, said he appreciates the concerns of local officials and has no interest in burdening them with an impossible task. He's willing to negotiate and compromise.

But McCrea is adamant that the Legislature move to strengthen the current audit rules during this session, so that sounder measures are in effect for the presidential election in November.

"You can theorize out some minor benefit or usefulness," McCrea said of what's now required, "but it doesn't begin to do what it's supposed to. It's a big waste of time."

State Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, said he backs tougher post-election audit requirements and is sponsoring the bill, SB 2544, which remains subject to change as talks continue among stakeholders.

"We are trying to push that discussion a little further," Justice said. "We understand the reality of what we are proposing in an election year, we also want to keep that topic alive."

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or 727-445-4166.

Better audits are sought for voting 03/05/08 [Last modified: Saturday, March 8, 2008 9:10pm]

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