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Flawed Florida Touch Screens Draw Scrutiny

A belated second look at irregularities in the 2002 state election reinforces fears that the November presidential vote could be a repeat of 2000's.

August 06, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Floridians worried about the reliability of touch-screen voting got more fodder for their fears Thursday: belated public scrutiny of a report on tens of thousands of ballots tossed out for irregularities in the state's most recent general election.

The Florida Division of Elections' report found that the rate of so-called undervotes, or blank or incomplete ballots, in the 2002 gubernatorial election was nearly three times higher in counties using touch-screen machines as in those with optical scan systems.

In the election, which incumbent Republican Gov. Jeb Bush won by a wide majority, more than 44,000 votes were ruled invalid because of undervotes, overvotes (when a voter chooses more than one candidate) or flawed absentee ballots, the report said.

The document, the basis for an article in Thursday's editions of the Miami Herald, was seized upon by critics of the screens, which Florida's most populous counties have purchased to prevent a repeat of the election debacle of 2000. The report attracted little notice when it was issued last year.

Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way Foundation, a voters' rights group, wrote Bush to suggest that residents of the 15 counties with the touch screens, which are akin to bank ATM terminals, be given the option of casting paper ballots in the upcoming presidential election.

"This would send a signal that election officials are willing to go the extra mile to let voters use technology they trust, even if it's just a pencil and a piece of paper," Neas said from Washington. Neas' group has joined with the American Civil Liberties Union in suing Florida to force the state to install backup systems on the touch-screen terminals so a paper trail would be generated for use in any recount.

The Division of Elections and Bush's office did not return calls for comment Thursday. But the agency, in a statement issued July 27, maintained that because of new hardware and voter education, Florida's undervote rate was at its lowest level ever. An undervote is not a lost vote or error, it said, but occurs when citizens exercise their right to withhold their vote.

However, the day before the article on the report was published, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, a Democrat, asked the county manager whether their jurisdiction should shift from touch-screen machines to paper ballots and optical scanners for the Nov. 2 election.

Last week, election workers in Miami said computer crashes had led to the loss of 2002 election data for the county, yet more proof of the touch-screen system's unreliability, according to its critics. The computerized records were later found.

In 2000, a disputed margin of just 537 votes handed Florida, and thus the presidency, to Republican George W. Bush, the governor's brother. That has led to intense awareness that tabulating all votes in the Nov. 2 presidential election could again be crucial. Moreover, opinion polls show President Bush in a tight race here with Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

Conditions could be ripe in this state, Neas said, for "the worst case scenario": a repeat of 2000 with a razor-thin edge of victory that will be promptly contested by the losing side.

The Jan. 31, 2003, report from the state Division of Elections found 33,737 undervotes, or almost 1% of all votes, in counties using touch-screen terminals, compared to 0.33% in the counties using optical scanners. Because of their design, the touch screens are supposed to eliminate one problem that particularly plagued Florida's 2000 presidential race and recount -- ballots where voters could mistakenly select two candidates for the same office.

"The thinking when these machines were introduced was, OK, we got rid of the overvote problem," said Lance deHaven-Smith, professor of public administration and policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee. "It turns out the machines are showing more undervotes than before, and more than the [optical scanners] in the state."

Two manufacturers have sold touch-screen terminals in Florida and have also supplied some of California's counties. Sequoia machines were used in the March California primary in Riverside, Napa, San Bernardino, Santa Clara, Shasta and Tehema counties. Voters in Merced County cast ballots on screens made by a competitor, ES&S.

Florida's Division of Elections said the replacement of old ways of voting, including the notorious punch cards and "butterfly ballots" of 2000, had led to a "dramatic" reduction in the percentage of overvotes, undervotes and invalid write-ins. According to the agency's report, in the last gubernatorial election, 0.86% of ballots were rejected as flawed, versus 2.93% in 2000.

"Jeb Bush has done a heck of a great job in reforming the election system," said David C. King, associate professor of public policy and research director at Harvard University's Institute of Politics. "Florida is light years away from what it was."

But even Bush's own party, in a flier sent to voters in July, has expressed wariness about the touch screens, advising Republicans in South Florida: "Make sure your vote counts. Order your absentee ballot today."

Times staff writer Stuart Pfeifer contributed to this report.

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