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The Miami Herald

Touch screens reduced spoiled ballots

Mon, Nov. 22, 2004
BY ANDRES VIGLUCCI aviglucci@herald.com

In November 2000, the voting precinct at Lillie C. Evans Elementary School in Liberty City was among the worst embarrassments in a dysfunctional presidential election: of 868 punch-card ballots, 113 were discarded as ''overvotes'' or ''undervotes,'' the worst rate in Miami-Dade County.

What a difference four years and $25 million for new voting equipment make.

When 755 people voted for president this month on touch-screen machines at Precinct 255 at the school, there wasn't a single chad in evidence, hanging or otherwise.

In fact, there wasn't a single discarded vote.

While certainly exemplary, the radical improvement at Precinct 255 was not unusual. ...


In 2000, thousands of votes on antiquated punch cards were lost when chads were left hanging or voters pinched but didn't pierce ballots. Many other votes were discarded because voters failed to fully darken the ovals or otherwise mismarked optical-scan ballots and didn't get a chance to redo them.

In some places, discard rates reached 12 percent.

This year, discard rates were often cut to half of 1 percent or lower, in some cases as little as a quarter percent. That's almost entirely thanks to new technology, ...


Take Miami-Dade, where 28,000 presidential ballots went uncounted in 2000 because they were under- or overvoted. With new touch screens, that dropped to 4,227, even as the number of ballots cast rose by 125,000. And most of those discarded were overvoted paper absentee ballots.

Even more dramatic was the effect on undervotes: reduced from 10,750 in 2000 to 460. Now, undervotes are likely the voters' choice not to cast a ballot in a certain race, not the result of a system malfunction, elections officials and experts say.

Broward County, which also replaced punch cards with touch screens, also substantially reduced discarded ballots, from 14,600 in 2000 to 2,852.

Or look at North Florida's Gadsden County, among the state's poorest counties. Four years ago, more than 2,000 optical-scan ballots, or 12 percent of the total cast, were discarded as under- or overvotes.

This year, only 110 ballots were spoiled.

The difference? The county spent $160,000 to equip its 25 precincts with optical-scan tabulators, into which voters feed their ballots. If the machine finds more than one vote in a race, or can't find any votes at all on the ballot, the sheet is returned to the voter, who can correct any errors.

In 2000, by contrast, the ballots were shipped to a central reader, and voters had no opportunity to fix mistakes ...

Another critical component, Gadsden Supervisor of Elections Shirley Knight said, was revving up voter education. ...

''I was shocked at how much better it was than what we saw four years ago,'' said Kurt Browning, veteran elections supervisor in Pasco County, which switched from punch cards to touch screens.

In Pasco, overvotes dropped from 2,141 in 2000 to just 136 -- all of those on paper absentee ballots -- even as the number of ballots cast rose from nearly 147,000 to 192,000. Undervotes dropped from 1,776 to 857.

What the touch-screen systems and the precinct optical-scan readers have done, Browning and other elections officials said, is virtually eliminate the questions about voter intent that arose with hanging or ''pregnant'' chads or improperly filled-in ovals on optical-scan ballots.

The changes are a direct result of the flawed 2000 presidential election, in which elections workers conducting recounts were forced to scrutinize pregnant chads on punch cards and optical-scan ballots unreadable by machine because voters didn't properly fill in the ovals or instead circled them, among other errors.


In 2001, the Florida Legislature banned punch cards, required precinct tabulators, and provided state aid for counties replacing or supplementing their voting systems.


Fifteen counties -- representing about half of Florida's population -- moved to touch screens. Though more expensive than optical scanners, touch-screens have the advantage of making overvotes impossible and reducing or eliminating accidental undervoting at polling places.

Those counties also went to electronic scanners for absentee ballots, which remain susceptible to over- and undervoting.

The other 52 of the state's counties are now equipped with optical-scan machines at every precinct.

In The Herald review, counties with optical scanners slightly outperformed those with touch screens.

Osceola and Duval counties, both of which switched from punch cards to optical scanners, had discard rates around a quarter percent, compared to rates around a half percent for the touch-screen counties checked.

That's likely because touch-screen systems, while greatly improved since their introduction, still need refinement in ''human factors'' such as screen layouts that can sometimes confuse voters, said Douglas Jones, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa who has served as a consultant to the Dade Elections Department.

''There are still some residual problems, but I think they're relatively small,'' Jones said.

Still, he noted, discard rates representing even a half percent of all votes mean thousands of lost votes on a statewide scale. ''We owe voters better than this,'' Jones said. ``On the other hand, we're doing better than we were.''

Voter education is one area where significant improvement is still possible, said Pasco supervisor Browning, noting persisting errors in absentee voting.

The Pasco canvassing board, following routine procedure, counted about 2,500 absentee ballots rejected by scanners because they had been mismarked, but a hand review showed clear voter intent.

''When you give someone a pen and piece of paper, you're not going to get what you do on a touch screen,'' Browning said.

But officials say the improvements should restore confidence in voting, although some issues -- like calls for paper receipts for touch-screen systems -- remain unresolved.

''We're not going to say everything is perfect,'' said Seth Kaplan, a spokesman for Miami-Dade elections. ``But we've come a long way.''

Herald staff writer Michael Vasquez contributed to this report.