Florida woes cast vote for caution

Problems with new touch-screen voting machines present lesson for other states considering electronic voting

The Florida voting fiasco of 2000 prompted the state to banish punch card ballots and their pesky paper chads, and buy $32 million worth of electronic voting machines.

The Florida voting fiasco of 2002 might prompt state officials to reassess their opinion of paper.

"There's a good lesson in Florida," said Stephen Ansolabehere, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor. "Put a backup in place — a paper ballot in case there is a problem."

On Sept. 10, thousands of Florida voters arrived at polling places to find new machines that wouldn't start, offered the wrong ballots, recorded the wrong votes or wouldn't record votes at all.

But the problems were more often blamed on human error and lack of training than on technology failures. So Florida's latest election troubles probably won't deter other states from switching to e-voting, election experts said.

"A lot of problems we heard about were poll workers being confused and unable to deal" with the new equipment, said Ansolabehere, a member of a voting technology project run by MIT and the California Institute of Technology. "Imagine a computer support staff that is all volunteer and mainly older people," he said.

Poll workers, particularly those in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, were stymied by troubles as ordinary as a nonworking electrical socket and tasks as arcane as inserting the correct definition card containing precinct data into touch-screen voting machines.

Hundreds of voters were turned away from Miami-Dade polling places because poll workers could not get electronic voting machines to boot up.

It was mostly a training problem, said Doug Lewis, director of the Election Center, a Houston-based organization of state and local election officials. "My hunch is that the poll workers did not realize that it's not just a matter of turning the machines on." Depending on the type of machine, touch screens must be warmed up, precinct data must be loaded and vote recording devices must be inserted before voting can begin.

In addition to new voting machines, Florida poll workers had to cope with new election laws, new policies and procedures and new ballot designs, Lewis said. "When you've got that many changes, you're asking for chaos."

Florida wasn't the only state troubled by new technology.

In Montgomery County, Md., when the new electronic system balked, poll workers drove computer memory cards — and results tabulated on paper — to the election headquarters, said Robert Ritchie, director of the Maryland-based Center for Voting and Democracy.

Similar troubles were reported in North Carolina.

Ritchie attributes the troubles to multiple sources: Voting machine vendors are overextended and cannot provide adequate support. States and localities are suffering from the economic recession and lack money for training. And a House and Senate deadlock over election reform legislation keeps $3 billion unavailable to the states, he said.

But not everybody had problems with electronic voting, Lewis noted.

While the two counties struggled, 65 other Florida counties conducted relatively trouble-free elections, he said. And voters generally like the new machines. "There are all kinds of really positive comments from voters," Lewis said.

Two types of machines dominate electronic voting — touch screens and optical scanners. Touch screens feature greater flexibility, making it easier to offer foreign language ballots and accessibility features for people with disabilities, Ritchie said.

But optical scanner machines offer the security of a paper ballot that can be counted by hand if the technology fails, Ansolabehere said.

Florida's troubles probably will make election officials more circumspect about the equipment they buy, but the switch to electronic voting machines will go on, experts agreed. California, for one, is under court order to replace its punch card machines, and New York is pondering touch screens, Ansolabehere said.

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