New voting machines debut for primary

07/30/08 Seán Kinane
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Many Floridians will be casting their votes on new machines during the primary next month. A 2007 state law requires that everyone in Florida cast votes on optical scan voting systems using paper ballots.

Nancy Whitlock is director of communications for the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections. She said that since 2001, Pinellas County had been using Sequoia voting systems touchscreen machines. The new optical scan system, in which voters fill in an oval, is made by Election Systems and Software (ESS).

“The new system cost about $5.5 million and about half of that was covered by federal funding,” Whitlock said.

The touchscreen machines replaced many older Florida voting systems after the close 2000 presidential election. One motivation for switching to optical scan was the 2006 congressional race between Vern Buchanan and Christine Jennings. The race was decided by fewer than 400 votes; but there were 18,000 undervotes, where the machine determined there was no vote recorded for that race.

Kindra Muntz, president of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections, calls it "a great first step."

One reason for the switch to optical scan machines is so there can be a paper trail of ballots in case a recount is needed. But the new law does not allow a full manual recount of all ballots in a close race, Whitlock said.

If the race is very close and the candidates are separated by less than half of a percentage point, ballots will be re-fed through the machine for a “machine recount.” of that race. If, after that process, the candidates are within a quarter of a percentage point of each other, then only a partial manual recount will occur, Whitlock said.

“The recount requires that all overvotes and blank ballots be outstacked and checked by hand to see what the voter intent is.”

An overvote is when the machine determines that a voter marked a ballot for two or more candidates in the same race.

Pam Haengel is the vice president and co-founder of the Florida Voters Coalition. “The problem there is if you’ve got a programming error, for instance, that switched a large number of votes, more than one percent, over to the wrong candidate, it would never ever trigger a recount.”

During the election tallying process, the machines are assumed to be tabulating the votes correctly. The only time the new law allows an audit to occur is after the results are final, Whitlock said.

“Currently the law requires that after the results have been certified that we will be auditing 2 percent of the precincts for one race that would cover all of the county. We pick one race that covers everybody. It is after the results have been certified. But it just provides a chance to see that everything was handled properly and the results are the same as we said they were, basically.”

Muntz said that a better audit system should be required.

Haengel, who is also president of Voting Integrity Alliance of Tampa Bay, said she encourages people to vote because the surest way for a vote not to count is for it not to be cast in the first place.

“We basically have a paper trail that goes nowhere right now. It’s there and only judge will be able to order an audit of an election in this state, other than the little one percent that the law currently provides for.”

Haengel said that on Tuesday a study was released by University of Pennsylvania computer scientists warning about the insecurity of voting machine software manufactured by ESS, the company used by Pinellas County.

You can cast your vote on the new optical scan ballots during early voting, which begins on Aug. 11 or during the Aug. 26 primary election.

Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning

Florida Voters Coalition

Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson

Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark (727) 464-6108

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho

Florida Recount Procedures

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