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February 2, 2007
Florida Dumps Touch-Screen Voting

Florida has decided to end its use of electronic voting machines, reversing a decision made at the height of the controversy over the 2000 election. The state will opt for the optical-scan technology that retains the paper trail necessary to ensure the ability to conduct recounts when necessary:

Gov. Charlie Crist announced plans on Thursday to abandon the touch-screen voting machines that many of Florida’s counties installed after the disputed 2000 presidential election. The state will instead adopt a system of casting paper ballots counted by scanning machines in time for the 2008 presidential election.

Voting experts said Florida’s move, coupled with new federal voting legislation expected to pass this year, could be the death knell for the paperless electronic touch-screen machines. If as expected the Florida Legislature approves the $32.5 million cost of the change, it would be the nation’s biggest repudiation yet of touch-screen voting, which was widely embraced after the 2000 recount as a state-of-the-art means of restoring confidence that every vote would count.

Several counties around the country, including Cuyahoga in Ohio and Sarasota in Florida, are moving toward exchanging touch-screen machines for ones that provide a paper trail. But Florida could become the first state that invested heavily in the recent rush to touch screens to reject them so sweepingly.

“Florida is like a synonym for election problems; it’s the Bermuda Triangle of elections,” said Warren Stewart, policy director of VoteTrust USA, a nonprofit group that says optical scanners are more reliable than touch screens. “For Florida to be clearly contemplating moving away from touch screens to the greatest extent possible is truly significant.”

The move points up the potential for costly errors when decisions are made in haste. After the 2000 election, Florida felt tremendous pressure to upgrade its voting infrastructure after widespread complaints about the punch-card system that had been used there -- and elsewhere -- for decades. Rather than take the time necessary to test the various systems and make rational decisions about the value of the various options on all, Florida and several other jurisdictions lept to the most high-tech solution on the market.

Unfortunately, the new technology had two basic problems that should have warned the governments involved right from the start. First, security on the machines turned out to be questionable. Any time computers get networked on a wide scale, the potential exists for malfeasance, and vulnerability increases with scale. Businesses manage those vulnerabilities by having IT professionals conduct continual maintenance on systems, but elections come only twice a year, requiring redeployment of wide-area networks for a single day 2/365ths of the year.

The security issues could be managed. However, the lack of a direct paper record of the voter's ballot seems like it should have been a showstopper, especially considering the high-profile recount that took place in Florida after the 2000 election. No one apparently thought that recounts would be necessary with the high-tech machines, a rather naive view of both technology and elections. When disputes arose about the counting functions of the machines, officials had no independent method to assure voters that their ballots had been properly counted.

Minnesota and other states have used optical-scan ballots for years, and they make the most sense. It retains the paper ballot that has the direct notation of voter intent, and the machines determine immediately if the ballot is properly executed. The system delivers an immediate count of the balloting after the polls close, but the ballots still exist if any disputes arise. Anyone who has used a Scantron form for a school test knows how to fill out the ballot. It's such an obvious choice that governments, and not just Florida's, couldn't see it.

I'd like to hope that people will remember this experience the next time an irrational panic regarding infrastructure arises. Just as with the Y2K scare, the rush to find solutions to problems that exists only on the fringe costs a lot of money and frustration. Just as with the Y2K scare, I doubt that this wisdom will be remembered in the next instance.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at February 2, 2007 6:01 AM

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