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BALLOT TECHNOLOGY CHANGES

Nov. 4 marks the second time all of Florida will vote using optical scan ballots. But with such a low turnout in the Aug. 26 statewide primary, many voters may be using it for the first time this election.

Optical scan technology uses paper ballots that resemble an answer sheet used for standardized tests.

For voters in 52 counties, including Hernando, the technology is old hat. The same is true for voters who regularly cast ballots by absentee.

But the majority of Florida voters live in 15 counties - including Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco - that adopted touch screen machines in the wake of the 2000 presidential recount debacle. They used optical scan technology for the first time in the August primary election.

Why now? A new state law pushed by Gov. Charlie Crist set optical scan as the state standard.

Voting via optical scan feels old fashioned after the touchscreen machine. It's a paper ballot, marked by a pen.

But advocates say that makes it superior. Optical scan creates a "paper trail" of an individual vote that won't disappear when machines malfunction.

In the Tampa Bay area, voters will use a pen provided for them at the polls to fill in an oval beside a candidate's name or ballot question response.

Voters are then instructed to feed their ballot into machine readers at each polling place. Totals from each machine are then transmitted to election headquarters in each county to tally the election's outcome.

But there's a current limit to the paper trail in Florida. Only a few ballots are ever re-examined in close elections.

A manual recount - or a count by hand - is ordered when the margin of victory is less than one-quarter of 1 percent.

But the law only requires a review of the paper ballots that the machines register as either overvotes and undervotes.

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

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