* 'Reluctant prophet' Kindra Muntz's petition drive overcomes Sarasota County objections to net 55.4 percent of vote for paper ballots.
SOUTH VENICE -- The resolute South Venice woman who forced Sarasota County officials to give voters a choice in the debate over paperless touch-screen election equipment has emerged as a reluctant prophet in the wake of last week's disputed outcome in Florida Congressional District 13.
"I suppose one could feel smug, but I'm not gloating. I'm just happy," said Kindra Muntz of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections President , a grassroots organization that spearheaded a charter initiative for new machines with paper receipts that received 55.4 percent voter support on Nov. 7.
As a result, Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent and the Sarasota County Commission must either replace more than 1,600 paperless voting machines before the 2008 general election cycle, or try to wiggle out of the obligation through court appeals.
The latter is extremely unlikely because Dent, who recommended the county buy paperless ES&S iVotronic equipment in 2001, has already announced she'll abide by the will of the majority and recommend the commission allocate more than $3 million for new machines.
Muntz was a political outsider until she publicly questioned the new wave of electronic voting equipment that came on the market after the chaotic 2000 general election, in particular machines that didn't produce voter-verifiable paper ballot receipts.
In 2004, an invitation to Washington, D.C., for educational seminars about the subject piqued her interest.
She returned in 2005 and 2006 when widespread reports about equipment malfunctions throughout the country escalated, and decided to do something about it.
"I had initially belonged to a Sarasota group called the Sarasota Alliance for Voter Education," she said. "When it got less active and began to focus on instant runoff voting, seven of us decided to put together a nonpartisan political action committee to address these voting machines."
While Muntz admits the petition language was an imperfect product of a committee process, its intent to scrap paperless touch-screen machines was unambiguous, and survived a court challenge mounted by the county commission.
"The challenge is now before the Second District Court of Appeal," she said, "but given what's currently going on, I'm hoping that Florida Secretary of State Sue Cobb and the county commission have a change of heart and reconsider. This needs to be resolved."
'Stroke of fate'
Concurrent with the court challenge is a search for more than 18,000 missing votes -- or what have been dubbed as "undervotes" -- in the "Now You See It Now You Don't" Congressional vote between Buchanan and Jennings, which are the subject of an ongoing recount process.
Unless the votes mysteriously appear, there is little likelihood the recount will produce definitive answers.
Without a paper trail of voter-verified paper ballot receipts, there is little for elections officials to compare with the system's electronic memory.
"I look at what happened in this race as a stroke of fate," Muntz said. "It is an unfortunate -- but prime -- example of the problem. Some people might call it the perfect storm. We tried to talk with the elections supervisor and county commissioners about this possibility."
Lest anyone underestimate Muntz, the Delmar, N.Y., native is a 1965 Radcliffe College graduate who majored in English, received a Harvard University degree, spent 18 years as a General Electric unit manager and six more as a Merrill Lynch retail broker.
"My mother was an American history teacher and dad a biological chemist with a Ph.D.," she said, "so my decision to work in industry at GE was a total shock to them. Their academic influence probably played a role in my decision to pursue the charter initiative."
In 1997, Muntz moved to Venice when her mother was stricken with Alzheimer's Disease.
"Mom was an angel. We lived in a mobile home for three years and people were wonderful to us," she said, "but as she became fuzzier and fuzzier, it became too difficult to handle."
When counselors at a small assisted-living facility in the Venice area finally convinced Muntz her mother would be well taken care of by professionals, she reluctantly turned over the responsibility and began to connect with a community she'd had little time for.
"I'd been trapped," she said. "Then I got re-involved in the world."
Muntz helped organize the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Venice church and a Montessori charter school, while at the same time educating herself on paperless touch-screen electronic voting machines.
"In 2004, I participated in 'A Computer Ate My Vote Day' series of demonstrations and helped organize three in Broward, Lee and Sarasota counties," she said. "When Bill Moyers did a PBS segment on them, it gave us a little press and Web sites began to form all over the country."
Now, in the wake of a tumultuous mid-term general election, the country is starting to focus on Sarasota County and its search for more than 18,000 votes.
The irony is not lost on Muntz and her small band of petitioners who sounded a warning.
"We'd like to see our attorney meet with the county's attorney and avoid any more court hearings," she said. "Florida law is working in our favor. The initiative language probably could be improved, but the substance and merit is there. We should work things out."
By JACK GURNEY
(C) 2006 All Rights Reserved
A division of Sun Coast Media Group Inc.
Publishers of the Sun newspapers.