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Voting machines debut in August primary

TALLAHASSEE — You used to push a button to cast your vote. Now you'll use a pen to fill in an oval or connect two arrows.

Sounds simple, right?

This being Florida, the change is accompanied by hitches and glitches — and the first real test, a statewide primary, is six weeks away.

For the third presidential election in a row, Florida is converting its voting machinery, from punch cards in 2000 to touch screens in 2004 to optical scan ballots in 2008. And once again, elections experts are fretting over the possibility of trouble, from long lines at voting sites to a close race that would require a recount of ballots.

"My biggest concern is that we would get out there on Election Day and we would have something happen and not have a response for it," said Secretary of State Kurt Browning, the state's top elections official. "You cannot afford to have anything go wrong. Period."

More than half of the state's voters live in 15 counties — including Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco — that will use optical scan ballots for the first time in the Aug. 26 primary. The other 52 counties already use the system for all voters.

Across the state, county election supervisors are training poll workers, staging practice elections and testing and displaying the new voting equipment to civic groups.

"If I weren't anxious, I'd be concerned," said Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, "There's a lot to get done and a very small window to get it done."

Gov. Charlie Crist, prodded by Democratic U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Boca Raton, ordered a $28-million conversion to a system of paper ballots marked by hand and fed into machines. But what Crist promised as a "paper trail" doesn't yet exist.

At voting precincts, scanning machines or "readers" will reject a ballot if a voter casts an overvote, a vote for more than one candidate in a race. But as growing numbers of Florida voters mark absentee ballots at home and return them by mail, no way exists to catch overvotes before voters submit their ballots.

Browning worries about what might happen if a razor-close race requires a recount.

By law, a candidate who loses by less than one-quarter of 1 percent is entitled to a manual recount, but the law requires only a review of overvotes and undervotes.

To Browning's frustration, the Legislature did not change the law to require a manual count of all paper ballots, even though Crist repeatedly promoted paper ballots as a way of providing "receipts" for wary voters.

"What good is giving a voter a piece of this paper if no one has access to it?" Browning said, holding up a sample ballot. "And under current law, no one has access to it. No one."

Not only that, Browning said, but Florida is a so-called voter intent state for recount purposes. A review of overvotes will mean a return to those days of 2000 with bleary-eyed canvassers peering at mismarked ballots to determine a voter's intent as a way of ensuring that all ballots are counted.

"It's a slippery slope," Browning said.

In most counties, voters will use a pen to fill in an oval next to the candidate or ballot question of their choice. But two counties, Palm Beach and Indian River, opted for a different style in which voters are asked to draw a horizontal line connecting two arrows pointing from right to left, in the candidate's direction.

"Everybody I've talked to looks at the arrow system and says, 'That's nuts,' " said Mark Herron, an election lawyer who represents the Florida Democratic Party.

Palm Beach County Election Supervisor Arthur Anderson insists drawing a single line is simpler, especially for older voters.

"Stop and think about it," he said. "From a practical perspective, which would you find easier, to bubble in an oval or draw a single line connecting two parts of an arrow?"

Pinellas Supervisor Clark said her four-step guide to optical scan voting includes asking voters to fill in an oval next to a ticket that they must exchange for a ballot at a voting precinct.

"We're doing that as voter education," Clark said.

Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho foresees a major challenge as masses of new voters line up to use unfamiliar voting equipment.

"Voter education is the key in something like this," Sancho said. "We're going to see a lot of first-time voters."

Besides the three Tampa Bay counties and Palm Beach, the other counties switching from touch screens to optical scan ballots are Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee, Collier, Miami-Dade, Broward, Martin, Indian River, Lake, Sumter and Nassau.

Early voting at regional voting sites starts Monday, Aug. 11, for the Aug. 26 primary.

Will Florida be ready for its first paper-only election? "We'll know once we do the primary," Herron said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com.

Voting machines debut in August primary 07/12/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 14, 2008 7:45pm]

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