[E-voting] Florida as the Next Florida

adam beecher lists at beecher.net
Sun Mar 14 20:58:32 GMT 2004

March 14, 2004
Florida as the Next Florida


As Floridians went to the polls last Tuesday, Glenda Hood, Katherine
Harris's successor as secretary of state, assured the nation that Florida's
voting system would not break down this year the way it did in 2000. Florida
now has "the very best" technology available, she declared on CNN. "And I do
feel that it's a great disservice to create the feeling that there's a
problem when there is not." Hours later, results in Bay County showed that
with more than 60 percent of precincts reporting, Richard Gephardt, who long
before had pulled out of the presidential race, was beating John Kerry by
two to one. "I'm devastated," the county's top election official said,
promising a recount of his county's 19,000 votes.

Four years after Florida made a mockery of American elections, there is
every reason to believe it could happen again. This time, the problems will
most likely be with the electronic voting that has replaced chad-producing
punch cards. Some counties, including Bay County, use paper ballots that are
fed into an optical scanner, so a recount is possible if there are
questions. But 15 Florida counties, including Palm Beach, home of the
infamous "butterfly ballot," have adopted touch-screen machines that do not
produce a paper record. If anything goes wrong in these counties in
November, we will be in bad shape.

Florida's official line is that its machines are so carefully tested,
nothing can go wrong. But things already have gone wrong. In a January
election in Palm Beach and Broward Counties, the victory margin was 12
votes, but the machines recorded more than 130 blank ballots. It is simply
not believable that 130 people showed up to cast a nonvote, in an election
with only one race on the ballot. The runner-up wanted a recount, but since
the machines do not produce a paper record, there was nothing to recount.

In 2002, in the primary race for governor between Janet Reno and Bill
McBride, electronic voting problems were so widespread they cast doubt on
the outcome. Many Miami-Dade County votes were not counted on election night
because machines were shut down improperly. One precinct with over 1,000
eligible voters recorded no votes, despite a 33 percent turnout statewide.
Election workers spent days hunting for lost votes, while Floridians waited,
in an uncomfortable replay of 2000, to see whether Mr. McBride's victory
margin, which had dwindled to less than 10,000, would hold up.

This past Tuesday, even though turnout was minimal, there were problems.
Voters were wrongly given computer cards that let them vote only on local
issues, not in the presidential primary. Machines did not work. And there
were, no doubt, other mishaps that did not come to light because of the
stunning lack of transparency around voting in the state. When a Times
editorial writer dropped in on one Palm Beach precinct where there were
reports of malfunctioning machines, county officials called the police to
remove him.

The biggest danger of electronic voting, however, cannot be seen from the
outside. Computer scientists warn that votes, and whole elections, can be
stolen by rigging the code that runs the machines. The only defense is a
paper record of every vote cast, a "voter-verified paper trail," which can
be counted if the machines' tallies are suspect. Given its history, Florida
should be a leader in requiring paper trails. But election officials,
including Theresa LePore, the Palm Beach County elections supervisor who was
responsible for the butterfly ballot, have refused to put them in place.

Last week, Representative Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, filed a federal
lawsuit to require paper trails. He relies on the Supreme Court's holding in
Bush v. Gore that equal protection requires states to use comparable recount
methods from county to county. Florida law currently requires a hand recount
in close races. That is possible in most counties, but the 15 that use
electronic voting machines do not produce paper records that can be
recounted. Under the logic of Bush v. Gore, Representative Wexler is right.

After the 2000 mess, Americans were assured they would not have to live
through such a flawed election again. But Florida has put in place a system,
electronic voting without a paper trail, that threatens once more to produce
an outcome that cannot be trusted. There is still time before the November
vote to put printers in place in the 15 Florida counties that use touch
screens. As we learned four years ago, once the election has been held on
bad equipment, it is too late to make it right.

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