First published: Saturday, February 10, 2007



Florida's example

The governor asks the Legislature to fund optical scan voting machines


Florida's infamous "hanging chads" became a symbol of the controversial 2000 presidential election, and prompted Congress to require better voting systems nationwide. Now, in an ironic twist, Florida just might become a symbol again, this time of how to hold reliable elections in the future.


If that happens, then Florida Gov. Charles Crist will deserve a good share of the credit. He has ordered the state to no longer use electronic touch-screen voting machines that do not produce a paper record of ballots cast. In their place, he wants the Florida Legislature to buy optical scan machines, which are far less expensive than touch-screen devices and which have a paper record of ballots that can be recounted when an election is close or contested.


Gov. Crist's action follows a highly contested, and controversial, congressional race in Sarasota County last November, when 18,000 electronic votes could not be accounted for. They were cast on touch-screen machines that had no paper trail. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., head of the Senate elections committee, has ordered an investigation.


New York, of course, requires that any touch-screen machines have a paper record. But the Legislature stopped short of mandating that optical scan machines be used statewide. Instead, the lawmakers have left it to county boards of election to decide what kind of voting system they want to buy. More and more, though, it appears that the better way to go is to require optical scan machines, period.


Touch-screen machines operate much like an ATM machine, where voters enter their choices electronically. While some of these systems produce a paper trail, there is still no certainty that they will produce reliable results. That's because the machines rely on software that might be compromised, either by hackers or human error, and thus the paper records they produce would show tainted results.


By contrast, optical scan systems work much the way Lotto machines do. Just as bettors mark their numbers and give them to a clerk, who scans them into the system, voters would hand mark paper ballots, which would be scanned electronically at the polling place. The paper ballots would be retained in case they had to be examined in a contested race. Because they are marked by hand, and not recorded electronically, they provide reliable record of voters' intentions.


And reliability should be the top priority of every county elections board in New York.


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