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Paper ballots could cause trouble in close races

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's switch to paper ballots adds a paper trail that didn't exist with touch-screen technology, but the new system may do little to avoid chaos after a razor-close election.

As early voting begins today for the Aug. 26 primary, elections officials are quietly praying for lopsided results.

Paper ballots bring their own trouble in a close race: In a manual recount of over-votes and under-votes, officials must study poorly-marked ballots for signs of voter intent.

And controversial rules aren't yet in place about how to discern a voter's intent on mismarked ballots.

In other words, it's 2000 all over again, when the world watched bleary-eyed election officials trying to discern if hanging, dimpled and pregnant chads reflected actual votes.

"We've come full circle," said Susan Gill, elections supervisor in Citrus County. "How far do we go? We're not mind-readers."

Touch screens were seen as Florida's salvation after the havoc of the 2000 recount. But a growing distrust of paper-less electronic voting, fueled by a tight congressional race in Sarasota, prompted Republican Gov. Charlie Crist and U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, to lead a bipartisan drive to junk touch screens.

More than half of the state's voters live in 15 counties, including Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco, that will use paper ballots for the first time in the primary. Even if the election goes smoothly, fears persist that the November general election could result in another Bush-Gore situation.

Any time two candidates' vote counts are separated by less than one-fourth of 1 percent, county canvassing boards must review over-votes and under-votes rejected by optical scan tabulators. The boards are comprised of a county judge, a county commissioner and an election supervisor.

To guide canvassing boards, the state Division of Elections is updating its rules to clarify what standards should be used to determine voter intent, and even drew hypothetical examples of mismarked ballots. But that has only stoked more controversy.

In a rule set for adoption on Sept. 28, the state says canvassing boards "must first look at the entire ballot for consistency," which some elections officials, such as Bay County's Mark Andersen, support, but others like Gill strongly oppose in written comments filed with the elections division.

Gill told the state that a vote should be counted if the voter's intent is clear, "even if the ballot was not marked in a consistent manner … some people choose to be creative or non-conformists."

The Florida Fair Elections Coalition, a DeLand watchdog group, agreed, saying a rushed voter might mark one race with a filled oval and another with a check mark. "When voter intent is clear, it should be the overriding factor," the group said, urging the state to give canvassing boards wide discretion.

The state's many hypothetical examples of haphazard optical scan voting include a voter drawing a circle and a line to choose candidates in different races (inconsistent and thus invalid); a horizontal line crossing an oval at two points (valid); a horizontal line crossing both the oval and the candidate's name (invalid); and lines striking out the names of all candidates but one (valid).

Secretary of State Kurt Browning says Florida is on a slippery slope in trying to divine a voter's intentions, and that it was a mistake for the state to declare itself a "voter intent state," meaning that canvassers have a duty to discern what a voter intended. (The alternative is to discard any ballot not completed exactly as required).

"Hindsight says we should never have done voter intent back in 2001. I'm telling you," said Browning, former Pasco County supervisor of elections. "We should have gone with the old adage, 'It is what it is.' "

Further complicating matters is that the Legislature has failed to pass a law implementing a manual recount of all paper ballots in razor-close races, leaving an affected candidate no recourse.

In 2008, no provision in state law exists for a hand recount of all paper ballots in a close election, an oversight Browning considers a major blunder and vows to fix in the next legislative session.

"Yeah, it's going to happen," Browning said of a tight race forcing a recount. "You know someplace, in some race … that race is going to be less than a quarter of a percent difference between the two candidates."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Paper ballots could cause trouble in close races 08/10/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 16, 2008 3:18pm]
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