Florida Voting: Third Time's the Charm?

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Joe Raedle / Getty

A poll worker prepares to feed absentee ballots into an optical scanner at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department after polls closed on Election Day on Nov. 2, 2004

For more than half of Florida's voters, including residents of the state's five largest counties, Election Day in November will mean choosing a President using a third new voting system in as many presidential elections. First it was those notorious punch cards; then it was ATM-style touch-screen machines. Now these Floridians will have the optical-scan ballot. Will 2008 be the year Florida finally gets it right?

In February 2007, less than a month into his governorship, Charlie Crist announced a proposal to eliminate all touch-screen machines in Florida, including the ones Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Pinellas and 10 other smaller counties spent millions of dollars on them after the 2000 election (in many cases, the counties still had millions left to pay off). The trouble: the machines did not produce a paper trail, a fact that critics pounced upon. Furthermore, a botched Sarasota County congressional election in November 2006 produced more than 18,000 "undervotes" (or nonvotes) using the machines in a race in which the contenders were just 400 votes apart. It was time to change methods. Again.

With the latest system, voters will receive ballots at polling places and use a pen to color in a bubble of their choice or connect a line between two arrows. They then submit the ballot to a poll worker who will run it through a scanning machine. Although the actual ballot is considered the voter's "receipt" — a term the governor used while touting the system last year — voters walk away with nothing. Votes are still tabulated electronically. The ballots are used as a backup for auditing and recount purposes.

The state has had a fits-and-starts rollout of the new system. A tiny percentage of voters in large counties like Palm Beach and Hillsborough have already tried their hand at optical-scan ballots in small municipal elections. If it is any indication, Palm Beach's first experience was not comforting. The center of the 2000 presidential election debacle, the county held its first test with optical-scan ballots on June 24 in a one-race municipal election. It took three hours to produce results for a little more than 4,000 votes. Two of the machines that scan the ballots broke down and were quickly replaced. Worse yet, another 697 uncounted votes surfaced three days later after an audit was conducted. (The state government has blamed the county for the problems, saying local election officials were not familiar enough with the new system to make it work efficiently.)

Election supervisors switching to optical-scan ballots are holding their breath. Large counties including Miami-Dade, Broward and Pinellas will have their first big test on Aug. 26, during the primaries for local, state and federal offices. The areas represent more than half of Florida's registered voters.

But it's the November presidential election that's causing a lot of stress. Some counties predict turnout to surpass 80%. Apart from the presidency, the ballot will include races for local judges; constitutional officers and city and county commissioners; state and U.S. Senators and representatives; and as many as 10 constitutional amendments. Voting with a paper ballot takes longer than with a touch-screen machine, and it may be unwieldy for poll workers to handle so much paper while dealing with a new system. Additionally, five counties offer multilanguage ballots.

To avoid Election Day bottlenecks, some supervisors are beginning a push for absentee balloting, allowing voters to submit their ballots by mail or drop them off at a specified location. The fear is that long lines caused by long ballots and the new voting system will create havoc on Nov. 4. "It's really going to be an issue," says Kathy Dent, Sarasota County's supervisor of elections. "We're really promoting absentee ballots." Miami-Dade County's supervisor of elections, Lester Sola, said his office will begin spreading the word on early voting and absentee ballots at least three weeks before the August and November elections, just as it did when touch-screen machines were in use. Sola said about 30% of registered voters cast their votes early in the 2004 presidential election. "We expect long lines," he said. "We want to maximize these resources."

Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who supported touch-screen machines, is confident voters will feel more comfortable with a paper ballot. He has visited the 15 counties making the switch to optical-scan ballots and acknowledges that a majority of the supervisors were initially "very distressed about the idea of having to shelve the touch-screen system.... I understand the trepidation. I understand the concern. But we cannot keep rehashing, 'Was this a good decision? Was this a bad decision?' Now we have to make sure that it works."