Florida Task Force Says Scrap Punch Card Ballots
By Daniel Seligson, Staff Writer
The Select Task Force on Election Procedures, Standards and Technology , was appointed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) in December, just after the Supreme Court upheld George W. Bush's victory in the state. Their final report marks the completion of the most anticipated of a number such post-2000 election studies underway nationwide.
The 20-member task force, split evenly among Republicans and Democrats, offered 35 recommendations Florida lawmakers should adopt before the next statewide election in 2002. The chief recommendation called for the punch card process to be replaced a uniform optical reader system.
Edward T. Foote, co-chairman of the task force, said the panel reached an early agreement to do away with punch card ballots. "I think the recommendation to move to a uniform and standard system by 2002 was the most important," Foote said. "It was discussed at great length. At heart, though, it was a consensus issue."
Foote, who serves as president of the University of Miami, said he saw "anger and frustration" from witnesses who testified during the task force's six meetings around the state. He and other members also read hosts of e-mails and letters from similarly irritated Florida voters.
The task force recommended the state move to optical scan cards, or paper ballots that require voters to fill in dots, squares or complete arrows to vote. Ballots are then electronically scanned at each precinct and rejected for over-votes, under-votes or stray marks. If a particular race is left blank or if a voter marks two competing candidates, the precinct machines reject ballots, giving voters a second chance to correct mistakes.
A task force analysis of errors in Florida's various forms of voting found the precinct optical machines, or those which accepted or rejected each individual voter's ballots produced a "spoiled ballot" rate of under 1 percent. By contrast, nearly 4 percent of paper ballots used in 24 Florida counties yielded serious errors.
"This election was decided by less than 537 votes...resulting in a 0.009 percent margin of victory," the report stated. "There was no room for errors and yet there were errors."
In some counties, the rate of error on paper ballots shot up over 9 percent. Similarly, optical scan ballots connected to central tabulator that did not return flawed ballots yielded a rate of error over 5 percent.
Optical scan ballots hardly represent state-of-the-art voting technology. They have been used for years in precincts in almost every state. According to the Federal Election Commission, optical scanning is used in 27.5 percent of all U.S. voting precincts.
The task force estimated the cost of moving the state to a uniform, precinct-level optical scan system at more than $40 million. But a plan to lease machines, put forward by Secretary of State Katherine Harris last week, would reduce the cost to $20 million to $25 million for the 2002 elections.
Still, Bush, Harris and others seeking to update Florida's voting face grumbling from some state lawmakers who say counties, rather than state coffers, should fund new voting machines.
Elizabeth Hirst, a Bush spokeswoman, said the governor would address the findings next week when he unveils his legislative package in preparation for the state's legislative session.
Mark Pritchett, executive director of the Collins Center, a Florida nonprofit which coordinated the task force and sponsored public hearings statewide, said some - if not all - of the panel's recommendations would likely be incorporated into the governor's legislative agenda.
Bush has already said he will put aside $30 million in his fiscal 2002 budget for "special projects," some or all of which could be spent on updating voting technology in the state.
Other task force recommendations included expanding voter education efforts, de-politicizing election supervisors, maintaining an on-line voter registration database, recruiting more qualified poll workers and creating uniform statewide ballots for each type of voting system.
State lawmakers and election directors nationwide will likely look closely at the task force report. Legislation in 18 states would at least study and at most overhaul voting systems in the wake of the 2000 presidential race. And many are using the Sunshine State's contested voting results as a case study in why election procedures need to be changed.
Congress will soon debate a number of bills that would provide between $500 million and $2.5 billion in federal funds for states to modernize their voting systems.