Delray Beach - 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
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
touchscreen 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."
Other states that rushed to buy the touch-screen machines are
also abandoning them. Earlier this week, the Virginia Senate
passed a bill that would phase out the machines as they wore
out, and replace them with optical scanners. The Maryland
legislature also seems determined to order a switch from the
paperless touch screens, though it is not clear yet if it will
require the use of optical scanners or just allow paper printers
to be added to the touch screens.
On Monday, Representative Rush D. Holt, Democrat of New Jersey,
plans to introduce a bill in Congress that would require all
voting machines nationwide to produce paper records through
which voters can verify that their ballots were recorded
correctly. A majority of House members have endorsed the
proposal, and the changes have strong support among Senate
Democrats. Mr. Holt's bill would also substantially toughen the
requirements for the touch-screen machines that have printers,
and experts say this could give even more impetus to the shift
toward the optical scanning systems.
Mr. Crist, a Republican, at times drew whoops and applause when
he announced his plan at the South County Civic Center in Palm
Beach County, the epicenter of the 2000 election standoff and
home of the infamous "butterfly ballot" that confused many
voters. The touch screens had replaced the punch-card systems
that caused widespread problems that year.
"You should, when you go vote, be able to have a record of it,"
Mr. Crist told a few hundred mostly older citizens at the civic
center, in Delray Beach, where many residents said they
accidentally voted for Patrick J. Buchanan in 2000 instead of Al
Gore because of the confusing ballot design. "That's all we're
proposing today. It's not very complicated; it is in fact common
sense. Most importantly, it is the right thing to do."
Mr. Crist's renunciation of touch-screen voting one month after
he replaced Jeb Bush as governor of the nation's fourth-mostpopulous
state, suggested that the fight for paper voting records, long a
pet project of Democrats, might become more bipartisan. Mr.
Crist made the announcement with Representative Robert Wexler, a
Democrat from Delray Beach who has ardently led the movement for
a paper trail and has attacked Republicans along the way.
"I support this plan 100 percent," Mr. Wexler said before
introducing Mr. Crist. "This governor means what he says, and
he's coming to Tallahassee and he's spreading the message
throughout Florida that this isn't about Republican or Democrat,
it's not about this ideology or that; it's about unifying people
and doing what's right for the people of Florida."
The 15 Florida counties that have adopted touch-screen voting in
recent years, including Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and
Hillsborough, would move to optical-scan voting under the
proposal before the presidential election of 2008. The plan
would give them the option, however, of using touch-screen
machines during the state's two-week early voting period that
precedes Election Day, if the machines are modified to provide a
paper trail. Those counties represent 54 percent of the state's
registered voters. Broward County alone has bought about 6,000
touch-screen machines in recent years, and Palm Beach County has
Mr. Crist said county election supervisors would explore how to
make optical-scan voting easier for blind people and for those
who speak foreign languages. In some cases, they have been able
to vote without assistance on the touch-screen machines.
Asked how he felt about discarding tens of millions of dollars
worth of touch-screen machines just years after they were
acquired, Mr. Crist said, "The price of freedom is not cheap.
The importance of a democratic system of voting that we can
trust, that we can have confidence in, is incredibly important."
Election experts estimate that paperless electronic machines
were used by about 30 percent of voters nationwide in 2006. But
their reliability has increasingly come under scrutiny, as has
the difficulty of doing recounts without a paper trail. Federal
technology experts concluded late last year that paperless
touch-screen machines could not be secured from tampering.
Some states had bought early versions of the paperless machines
before the 2000 recount, and one of them, New Mexico, switched
last year to optical scanners. But most of the machines in other
states were purchased with federal money provided under a 2002
law that required states to upgrade from old punch-card and
New York is planning to buy either screens with printers or
optical scanners, New Jersey is adding paper trails to its touch
screens and Connecticut is buying the optical scanners. A recent
survey by Election Data Services, a Washington consulting firm,
estimated that 36 percent of the nation's counties have bought
electronic machines, including some with printers attached,
while 56 percent have the optical scan systems.
Mr. Holt said his bill would require the return to paper ballots
by next year's presidential primaries, and it would authorize
$300 million in federal money to upgrade the machines. Some
state and county election officials say it could be difficult to
make such sweeping changes by then.
But, Mr. Holt said, "it depends on how badly we want to do it.
The public is getting very impatient here."
In Sarasota County last November, more than 18,000 voters who
used touch-screen machines did not have their votes recorded in
the close Congressional race between Vern Buchanan, the
Republican, and Christine Jennings, the Democrat. Mr. Buchanan
took office last month after a recount gave him a 369-vote
victory, but Ms. Jennings has sued.
Former Governor Bush, President Bush's younger brother,
generally defended touch-screen voting during his tenure and
said skeptics had fallen prey to "conspiracy theories." But
leading up to the 2004 presidential election, the Republican
Party of Florida sent out fliers urging voters to use absentee
ballots because of the absence of a paper trail.
Experts say the optical scanners are less expensive than the
touch-screen systems. But Kimball W. Brace, the president of
Election Data Services, said optical scanning systems had had a
slightly higher rate of voter error than touch screens.
Abby Goodnough reported from Delray Beach, Fla., and Christopher
Drew from New York.