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Touch Screen Voting Machines Worry Some Florida Voters - 2004-07-15

Four years after punch card ballots in Florida caused havoc in the 2000 presidential election, there is another election controversy in the sunshine state. Some Florida voters say new touch-screen voting machines, introduced to correct the mistakes of the past, are not reliable. State officials say the machines are an improvement over paper ballots.

This angry crowd of Florida voters was protesting recently outside the Broward County Elections Department in the city of Ft. Lauderdale, just north of Miami. The protesters say they want paper receipts this year when they go to vote on newly introduced touch-screen voting machines.

Touch-screen voting machines have been introduced in 15 of Florida's 67 counties, including in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, where most of the problems with punch-card ballots were reported in the 2000 election.

Those problems led to a 36-day recount, which was ultimately decided in George Bush's favor by the United States Supreme Court. Mr. Bush was declared the winner of Florida's 27 Electoral College votes by a margin of 537 votes. This year, Florida is again expected to be a pivotal state in the election, and for voters like Cara Campbell, who was one of the protesters outside the Broward County Elections Department, touch-screen voting is worrisome.

"The particulars that I have a problem with is that, even if you get a paper ballot or receipt that says we acknowledge that you voted, I do not know what is going on inside that machine," he said. "I want paper ballots that are counted. That is what I want."

Florida election officials say the machines are a vast improvement over paper, or punch-card ballots, which, in some instances, were poorly designed, and failed to be counted, if not punched strongly enough. However, election officials say there is no way to offer a paper receipt from the machine, making it impossible to conduct a manual recount with the touch screen machines.

Brenda Snipes, the supervisor of elections for Broward County, says she sympathizes with voters who say they want a paper receipt from the touch-screen voting machines. But only Florida's legislature can authorize printers for the machines, and they have not done so. Ms. Snipes says she has confidence in the machines, but there is a nagging issue among voters this year.

"[That is] voter confidence. I have not found any mechanical issues with the machines," she said. "But because there is such a concern on the part of the voter, we have to do all we can to try and regain their confidence. It would be wonderful, if there were paper records. But there will not be, based on what I know of the process. There will not be a paper record, and that is not fair. They are concerned. They are emotional about it. I would lose my own integrity, if I stood there and said there is going to be a paper record."

More doubts about the machines emerged recently, when officials in Miami-Dade County reported problems with the machines' ability to audit results. Seth Kaplan, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade Elections Department, says the manufacturer has provided software to correct the problem, which he says would not have affected the integrity of the vote-counting process, but only the speed at which votes are counted.

"Most of these technical issues, which we have all heard and read about here, are issues that do not impact the integrity of the elections," he said. "In some cases, they might impact the speed with which we conduct certain processes. And while, of course, we would like to do everything as quickly as possible, the most important thing is to do it as correctly as possible. So, in some instances, we are just going to do things by a slightly more manual manner than we might prefer."

Election officials in Florida say the switch from punch-card ballots to touch-screen voting is an entirely new technology, which is bound to raise concerns among voters unfamiliar with the new machines. However, they say, the new machines are much more accurate than punch-cards, and problems that developed with the ballots cast in 2000 will not recur. Florida voters and the nation will be watching closely on Election Day this year to see to see if they are right.