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The Brandenton Herald

Vote machines spark uproar in Sarasota

Without paper trail, recount may prove nothing about touch-screens

November 12, 2006
Herald Staff Writer

SARASOTA - Vote machines spark uproar in Sarasota

A razor-thin margin of victory. Allegations of malfunctioning touch-screen voting machines. No way to tell if the machines failed to record votes.

Two years ago, a congressman and two Palm Beach County commissioners feared such a post-election nightmare could happen again in Florida. Thus, they and a voter sued to force state action to prevent a repeat occurrence.


They lost in court - and now the scenario he and others dreaded is unfolding yet again.

This time it's in Sarasota County, which recorded 18,382 blank votes or "undervotes" in a high-profile congressional race where a scant 373 votes separate the two candidates: Vern Buchanan, who has the lead, and Christine Jennings. The race is so close that a recount likely will be done Monday.

Numerous voters and Jennings contend the computerized machines malfunctioned, saying they didn't show the race or accurately record all votes cast for Jennings. Elections officials stand by the machines, saying those 18,000-plus voters either mistakenly overlooked the race or purposely skipped it altogether.

To determine whether the undervotes were the result of an "anomaly," the Florida secretary of state's office next week will send a team to audit the county's election procedures and to test the iVotronic touch-screen machines, according to a letter from Secretary of State Sue M. Cobb to Sarasota Count Elections Supervisor Kathy Dent.


Either side could be right about the machines - but neither will be able to prove it.

That's because Florida doesn't require such voting systems to keep a paper trail of how voters marked their electronic ballots. ...

"If there's a virus or something wrong in the way the machines are programmed and votes aren't captured properly, the voter has no idea," said Susan Greenhalgh of VoteTrustUSA, ...

Because of that, state law tells election officials to presume blank votes were intentionally cast and to disregard them ...

Fransetta and others have tried to change that, filing suits seeking to force Florida to join the 27 other states that require voter-verified paper records. At least five such lawsuits have been filed in Florida since 2004, according to VerifiedVoting.org, another voter advocacy group


"Paper receipts prove nothing," the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections says in talking points posted on its Get Out the Vote Web site.

Elections officials also argue that because paperless machines record only summary information and not actual ballots, recounts won't show different results from the initial tabulation.

Based on that, the state once specifically exempted counties that use touch-screen voting machines - there are now 20, including Sarasota - from having to conduct manual recounts.

A judge struck down the exemption in 2004, forcing the Florida secretary of state's office to issue an emergency recount procedure for such machines. It later was incorporated into a permanent rule.

The procedure requires officials to print out ballot images from machines that recorded undervotes, then examine the images for clear indications - as determined by the machine's manufacturer - that the voter intended to skip the race.

A voting-machine expert said the images, though, don't show whether the voter tried to vote but the machine wouldn't let him.

"There's nothing in that after-the-fact printout that would disclose the presence of error in the vote-recording mechanism," said Douglas Jones, a University of Iowa computer science professor.

Therein lies the biggest problem with paperless voting machines, one that can be easily prevented because the technology is available, critics said.

But Florida has been reluctant to use it.

At least six bills that would have required paper records or paper ballots have died in the last three state legislative sessions, none getting out of committee for a floor vote.


Coincidentally, on the same ballot as the Buchanan-Jennings race was a referendum on whether paper ballots should replace the county's touch-screen machines. It passed with nearly 55 percent of the vote.


While the referendum result was a small victory for voter-rights and election reform groups, they are hoping for an even bigger win in Washington.

The Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act, which would require a voter-verified permanent paper record or hard copy, has the backing of more than half of the House's membership. The bill is in committee, but paper-record advocates are pushing hard for a floor vote.


Until then, all there will be in Sarasota County and Florida is speculation about whether the county's touch-screen voting machines worked properly - and if they didn't, then why.

"All the voters in the U.S. deserve to know what went wrong with these machines because others are using them, too," Jones said, noting he voted on one himself last week. "This is not just limited to Sarasota County."

Herald staff writer Nicholas Azzara contributed to this story.