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New ballots pass test in Osceola

Ruth Snyder did her part Tuesday to help Florida bury the past. She cast one of Osceola County's first optically scanned ballots in a special state Senate election.

"It's wonderful. I liked everything about it," said Snyder, 82, who proudly wore an "I voted" sticker as she left Boggy Creek Elementary School, undeterred by recent back surgery. "It was just like they showed on television."

Here, in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom, voters happily said goodbye to hanging chads Tuesday as the first of 41 punch-card counties stepped cautiously into the world of precinct-based scanners, designed to eliminate human error at the polls.

It was uneventful, just as voters and election experts had hoped.

"I love it," said Ina Anderson, a precinct clerk at the Shingle Creek United Methodist Church. "The voters know instantly that they've voted and that their vote is being counted. If anything's wrong with a ballot, it gets rejected."

Osceola voters were happy to be pioneers in a special election that featured ballots in English and Spanish, and received close attention from election supervisors from other counties.

Osceola could have legally used punch cards, but Gov. Jeb Bush told Osceola to borrow optical scanners from neighboring Brevard County, which shares Senate District 18 with Osceola.

Republican Glenn Bryan, a retired surgeon and former president of the Florida Medical Association, was forced into a July 31 runoff against either former state Rep. Howard Futch of Melbourne Beach or former developer Jim Swann of Merritt Island.

Democrats nominated Lance Easley of Cocoa, a former salvage yard manager, and two write-in candidates also qualified for the Aug. 31 general election.

The single-issue, low-turnout election was the antithesis of last Nov. 7, which featured high turnouts and a razor-close presidential contest. But election experts were eager for a trouble-free election, and they got one.

Nobody was happier than Donna Bryant, Osceola's election supervisor, who was beaming as half of her county's votes were tallied 10 minutes after the polls closed.

Unlike punch cards, which were carried by car back to election headquarters to be counted, the scanner totals can be sent over a phone line using a computer modem.

"I was very excited about it coming in so fast," Bryant said. "I think it was a good preliminary to the real big elections."

Younger voters also found the bubble ballot simple, and reminiscent of standardized tests they took in high school or college.

"It wasn't anything high-tech or anything. From school, I already know how to bubble in," said Ruben Henkins, 26, who rode his bike to the polls.

Apryle Jackson, a middle-school English teacher, felt right at home with the new system. "Much easier," Jackson said. "I teach, so I already know how it works."

Last week, voters received sample ballots by mail with directions on how to fill in an oval bubble on a paper ballot, before slipping it into a boxy machine that uses a narrow beam of light to read votes. That same system is in use in 17 counties, many of which had among the fewest spoiled ballots in last November's tainted presidential vote in Florida.

Tuesday's Osceola election was set just five weeks ago, after Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Sen. Charlie Bronson of Brevard County as state agriculture commissioner. That left only enough time to train poll workers in the fine points of optical scan voting.

Bill Allman, the clerk at Boggy Creek Elementary's Precinct 39, took a 2{-hour training course. He encountered just one glitch Tuesday: a voter who marked the bubble on his ballot with a tiny hash mark, instead of filling it in. The scanner rejected the ballot.

"It didn't register," Allman said. "It sounds to me like an infallible system."

While Osceola residents voted, election supervisors from several other counties, including Deborah Clark of Pinellas, spent the day here, observing the dry run, asking questions and picking up pointers for use when they switch voting equipment in the weeks and months ahead.

The elections experts also were treated to a lengthy sales presentation by executives of Global Election Systems, the Texas company that markets the Accu-Vote system to 17 counties across Florida. Global, and its competitors, are racing to gain state approval for ATM-like touch screens, which most big-county election supervisors prefer.

Global executives viewed the Osceola election as a golden opportunity to demonstrate the reliability of their hardware

"Life is good," said John McLaurin, a Global executive. "It's a big world out there for us."