Voting equipment changes could get messy on Nov. 4

Federal investigators found voters overlooked the open-seat race, won by 369 votes by Republican Vern Buchanan, because of poor ballot design.

Fears that the machines had made votes disappear led Florida's GOP governor, Charlie Crist, to push through a state law last year mandating their replacement.

Today, proponents and opponents of touch-screen machines agree on one thing: Decisions to buy them, only to discard them later, were a waste of money.

"The rush to electronic machines and the belief that the newest technology would cure the electoral ills was hasty, that is for sure," says Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., who led the fight to eliminate touch-screen voting in Florida. "As a result, you cannot help but conclude that money was wasted."

The new system in Palm Beach County — dubbed ground zero of the 2000 election recount in Florida that gave Bush a 537-vote win statewide and sealed his Electoral College victory — got its first test during a state primary in August.

About 3,500 paper ballots were "lost" and later found right where they belonged, resulting in seven recounts before a judicial race was decided.

"The joke was we now have a paper trail, we just can't find it," says Brad Merriman, the assistant county administrator who was handed supervision of elections just days before the 2000 fiasco. Now, he'd just as soon turn back the clock, at least halfway.

"The touch screens were perfect. We never had any scandals," Merriman says, even without a paper trail.

August's primary in Palm Beach had 102,000 voters. Next week's will have about 700,000, voting at 783 precincts in 450 polling places with 185 different ballot styles.

If memory cards or scanners fail or a recount is required, 1.4 million pieces of paper may not bring peace of mind.

"The more paper we get involved with, the more likely that we're going to see error," says Barry Cohen, the judge who heads the county's elections canvassing board. "A better designed punch card might have been the best solution."

A rush to 'technical solutions'

When President Bush signed the Help America Vote Act into law on Oct. 29, 2002, it was viewed as the antidote for the electoral meltdown of 2000.

Armed with federal money, states and counties ditched punch cards and lever machines for optically scanned paper ballots and touch-screen machines.

Traditional lever machines are expensive to store, maintain and transport, and sensitive to humidity. Punch cards often emerge with dimpled, pregnant or hanging "chads," making it hard to divine voters' intent.

The number of voters using punch cards gradually dropped from 31% of all voters in 2000 to a fraction of 1%, represented by eight Idaho counties. Those using lever machines declined from 17% to 7% — all New Yorkers.

"The Democrats in Congress were determined to get rid of punch cards," recalls Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., who fought unsuccessfully to set standards first. They believed Bush had been "illegally elected," he says.

On the flip side, the use of touch-screen machines soared from 12% of voters in 2000 to 22% in 2002, 29% in 2004 and 38% in 2006. Those using optical scanners rose from 30% to 50% in the same six-year span.

It wasn't cheap.

The U.S. government coughed up $3 billion, and states added some of their own money. More than $1 billion remains to be spent. Even so, states such as New Mexico and Ohio, where multiple systems were bought and discarded, soon ran out of federal money.

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