Out of Touch

You press the screen. The machine tells you that your vote has been counted. But how can you be sure?

Haynie and Hager were certified as winners by LePore's office. Charlotte Danciu, then joined by lead attorney Rob Ross, filed suit contesting the results on March 25, 2002, in Palm Beach County Circuit Court.

Their case was bolstered, they believed, when Councilman Al Paglia lost his seat by four votes to Lizbeth Benacquisto during a runoff contest held March 26 in Wellington, a town of 42,000 in central Palm Beach County. Although Paglia and Benacquisto were the sole candidates on the ballot, 78 so-called undervotes were registered, meaning 78 voters used the machine but did not cast a ballot. That struck Paglia as odd because he'd garnered 45 percent of the votes during the primary run against three challengers. And then, he too began hearing stories from voters that the Sequoia touch screens had acted erratically. On Paglia's behalf, Charlotte Danciu and Ross filed suit on April 5 contesting the Wellington election.

The candidates' legal team was convinced that independent computer experts could ascertain whether something had gone wrong inside those ballot machines. The experts, however, would never get the chance.

Broward commissioner Ben Graber says that he wanted paper receipts on ballot machines but that public pressure was staunch for paperless touch screens
Colby Katz
Broward commissioner Ben Graber says that he wanted paper receipts on ballot machines but that public pressure was staunch for paperless touch screens
Theresa LePore, elections supervisor for Palm Beach County, says she's "very comfortable" with the county's touch screens
Colby Katz
Theresa LePore, elections supervisor for Palm Beach County, says she's "very comfortable" with the county's touch screens

The disputed result of the presidential election of 2000 was a watershed event for ballot-box technology in the United States in general but for Florida in particular. The poorly designed butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County led to possibly thousands of voters' inadvertently choosing Pat Buchanan over Al Gore. Televised images of Republican and Democrat monitors holding paper ballots up to the light in search of "pregnant" and "hanging" chads were an embarrassment to officials and citizens alike. Why, some asked, would any county use such an antiquated method to elect its leaders in the era of computers?

In the aftermath of that election, the Florida Legislature took up the subject of election reform. In May 2001, lawmakers banned punch-card ballots and required that new equipment be capable of screening for over- and undervoting. The measure allowed the use of optical scanners, a system that uses paper ballots on which voters fill in an oval beside a candidate's name -- similar to the method used for decades in standardized testing in schools. Optical scanners were already employed in 26 counties. The other approved technology was touch-screen computers, though at the time none had been certified by the state's Division of Elections.

"Everything that the legislature required the rest of the counties to do, we had been doing well in advance of the mandated date," says Ion Sancho, elections supervisor for Leon County, home of Tallahassee. "I was a candidate in a botched election in the September primary in 1986," Sancho recalls. "One of my major reasons for becoming supervisor was having experienced that kind of problem. An incompetent supervisor of elections had failed to properly program the lever machines that were then being used in Leon County, which led to possibly as many as 5,000 voters' not having their votes count. Many people told me that they tried to vote for me but couldn't figure out how to do that successfully because of misalignment of the levers."

So when he was elected supervisor in 1988, his top priority was to replace the lever machines. "I looked at the voter technologies in the state, and I didn't like any of them," he says. "I went to an optical scan in 1992 that had overvote protection, which meant that if a voter made more than one choice in a race, that ballot was returned immediately to the voter; the machine would not collect it. With other optical machines being used then, the ballot would be collected [and] go into a central tabulation center, where it would be kicked out for an incorrect vote. But the voter wasn't around to correct the problem.

"That was one of the problems that blew up the 2000 election," he notes. "Over 105,000 Floridians tried to cast a vote for an individual in the presidential race and had their votes thrown out. That is what caused the 36-day legal battle."

Sancho testified before a governor's task force on election reform in January 2001 and explained how Leon County's system worked. "I didn't recommend any particular kind of technology," he recalls. "I didn't say, 'Don't use touch screens.' I just pointed out that I had a paper system that worked. In fact, our error rates were some of the best not only in Florida but in the nation."

The lure of touch screens, however, was powerful.

Katherine Harris, Florida's secretary of state, promoted touch screens as the ultimate solution. In August 2001, she told the Sun-Sentinel, "The touch-screen technology appears to be a significant leap forward." She added, "[W]e hope we are going to see a lot more of these opportunities materialize."

By late 2001, the Division of Elections had certified for use touch-screen machines manufactured by three companies: Election Systems & Software, Sequoia Voting Systems, and Global Election Systems, which was subsequently bought by Diebold Elections Systems Inc. Because the legislature had mandated a switchover from punch-card ballots by the fall 2002 election, those certifications set off a frenzy of lobbying by the companies and election supervisors. Congress sweetened the pot in October 2002 when it passed the Help America Vote Act, which authorized $3.9 billion in federal spending to in part help states replace punch-card and lever voting machines. In every county save Miami-Dade, supervisors are independently elected, but the millions of dollars they would need to buy touch screens had to be appropriated by county commissions.

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