Officials insist voters won't see a replay of 2000

Published: Sunday, September 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 31, 2002 at 11:43 p.m.
WEST PALM BEACH - This time around, the verbal jabs won't revolve around hanging chads and butterfly ballots.
Those symbols of the embarrassment-riddled 2000 presidential election are gone, replaced by ATM-style machines and computers that tally ballots marked by a special ink pen, not a stylus.
Elections officials insist voters won't see a replay of the botched election, which ended with George W. Bush beating Al Gore by just 537 votes in Florida. But few expect the state's new voting system to complete its first statewide test unscathed during the Sept. 10 primary.
"Every time you have elections you have winners and losers, so there's always something to complain about," said Theresa LePore, the Palm Beach County elections supervisor infamous for using a ballot that confused many voters in November 2000.
LePore already has heard many complaints about the $14.4 million worth of machines Palm Beach County voters began using in city elections this winter. Two losing candidates sued and demanded recounts. In one runoff race, the machines registered blank ballots for 3 percent of voters.
But most voters have nothing but compliments. Diane King, a Boca Raton resident of 46 years, said she had no trouble when trying out the new technology in a city election. She raved about some features, including how the machines let you review your choices and change your vote.
"If you say, 'Omigod I didn't want that person,' you can switch," she said. "It's very simple."
Elections officials say mistakes are inevitable, but they promise improvements over 2000. They have held hundreds of demonstrations on the new equipment, improved training for poll workers and taken careful notice of details that might have previously been overlooked.
"There's no question that anytime you have human beings involved it's not going to be a perfect system, but Florida has created the national model for election reform," state elections spokesman David Host said.
Not everyone agrees. Rebecca Mercuri, a computer science professor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, said the machines are rife with glitches. She said because the machines are self-auditing, there is no outside review of their accuracy, and they don't provide voters any assurance that their votes are being cast.
When trying out the machines, Mercuri said she has had to press on a candidate's name repeatedly before a vote registers and that if she presses on two candidates' names, the vote will register for a third candidate.
But LePore said Mercuri, unlike voters, tries to intentionally fool the machines. In Palm Beach County, the technology has been tweaked to alert voters if they didn't vote on each race and issue. If they left a ballot blank altogether, a second alert will appear on the screen, asking voters, "Are you sure you've finished voting?"
"I'm confident voters won't have any problems if they pay attention to what they're doing," LePore said. "We've tried to make it as easy as possible."
More than 50 percent of Florida voters will cast ballots on the touchscreen machines, a computer that sits atop spindly metal legs. They'll press buttons like those they see on ATMs, gift registries in department stores and credit-card machines that dispense tickets at movie theaters.
The Legislature approved spending $32 million to reform Florida's election system last year and eliminate punch-card and hand-counted paper ballots along with mechanical-lever voting. Instead, all precincts are required to have touchscreen voting machines or optical-scan machines that tally ballots marked by special pens.
The largest counties, 15 in all, purchased the touchscreen machines, while the remaining 50 bought the less-expensive option. For counties with those machines, each precinct will have a counting machine that will reject an undervote, where no choices have been made, or an overvote, where a voter selects more than one candidate.
Okeechobee County elections supervisor Gwen Chandler said with the new technology, voters can't leave the precinct without knowing their vote counted. She said the new machines are a drastic improvement over those Okeechobee voters have used since 1988.
"Have you ever had a car for 14 years and then got into a new one?" Chandler said. "I think I can identify with how that person feels."
Chandler and her colleagues across the state have been visiting civic groups, hospitals and churches to teach voters how to use the new machines.
LePore held a much-publicized mock election in supermarkets and shopping malls allowing voters to pick their favorite American sports star and president. Hillsborough County elections chief Pam Iorio has displayed the new technology with nearly 400 road shows.
In Miami-Dade County, the machines have been used in hundreds of demonstrations at malls, shopping centers and community halls, said elections chief David Leahy.
Election officials say one of the biggest challenges has been trying to familiarize the computer-illiterate with the new technology.
Broward County had to scramble to recruit and train 3,000 poll workers in early August, in part because former poll workers were scared away by the computerized machines. Supervisor of Elections Miriam Oliphant also extended the work week to six days and tripled the number of people answering phones. The county has the state's largest number of registered voters, nearly 1 million.
Despite the trouble, Oliphant says she's confident Broward County will be ready for the primary.
As for the rest of Florida's elections officials, many say they're hoping for a lot of landslides.
"We don't care who wins as long as they win by a large margin," said state elections director Ed Kast.

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