One more stab at punch cards

Florida: Palm Beach County voters' return this week to the dreaded land of chads was prefaced with lots of advice.

March 16, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BOCA RATON, Fla. - In the place that made chads famous, Steven L. Abrams is settling in to his newly elected job as mayor, a hard-fought race he won this week with the help of some succinct advice to voters: "Don't leave me hanging."

The message, which he mailed to thousands during his campaign, is one that reverberates throughout chad-crazy Palm Beach County, where Abrams and a host of other political candidates have zealously given supporters an education in how to cast a dimple-free, clearly punched ballot. Even after the lingering presidential controversies, the punch cards are still the staple of elections here - for now.

Thousands of voters in 17 of the 38 small- to medium-sized towns that make up Palm Beach County - where November ballot troubles during the Gore-Bush race earned the county a spot in the annals of electoral bumbling - were back at it Tuesday choosing mayors and city council members. They cast their votes on punch cards, probably for the last time.

"They should burn them," said a disgusted Barbara Lipsky, a transplant from Long Island, N.Y., who checked and re-checked and checked again to make sure she cast the right vote during her first chance to vote since November's "disgrace."

Not exactly what a state elections task force set up in the months since has recommended, but close. By 2002, when Gov. Jeb Bush - the president's brother - is up for re-election along with the entire state Legislature, the idea is to rid Florida's ballot boxes of punch cards.

In their place, task force members recommend leasing optical scan voting machines - similar to those that grade tests taken with a No. 2 pencil and are used in 19 Maryland counties - at a cost of $20 million to $40 million for the 26 of Florida's 67 counties now using punch cards, lever machines and paper ballots.

The idea is to replace the scanners later, with something more cutting-edge, at a cost estimated in the $200 million range.

"The public no longer has confidence in them," said Pam Iorio, president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, who runs elections in Tampa. "When a system becomes discredited and the butt of jokes, you cannot use it. We need to move off these antiquated systems."

The presidential race hinged on Florida's 25 electoral votes and, after recounts and court battles, George W. Bush defeated then-Vice President Al Gore by 537 votes here to wrap up the White House. He didn't make his victory speech for 36 days.

When voting in Palm Beach County, residents are handed computer punch cards and instructed to slide them into a ballot mechanism. They are instructed to punch a hole through the slot next to their candidate's name with a metal stylus, punching out what is known in the national lexicon as a chad. They toss the ballots into locked boxes and leave. The holes they made are read at the end of the day by a machine that uses light to tally votes.

If a voter doesn't punch all the way through - and the chad is hanging or dimpled - the light can't record it, and it won't count. And if the voter chooses two candidates where only one is permitted, the ballot can't be used either.

"There is no perfect system," said David C. Leahy, supervisor of elections in Miami-Dade County, the largest in Florida. But in their rush to replace punch cards, some officials worry the state could be wasting its money just to address a public relations nightmare.

"We tried to come up with some sort of in-between for '02," said Philip D. Lewis, a task force member who represented parts of Palm Beach County in the state Senate for 10 years.

Punch cards have been around since the 1960s; optical scanners since the 1970s. Theresa LePore, the county supervisor of elections known for designing the confusing "butterfly ballot," said that's why she can't support replacing one with the other.

Instead, she wants the county to hold out for touch-screen voting, like a bank's automatic teller machine, which is more expensive in the short run, but should save money in the long run since it eliminates the need for expensive paper ballots that cost a quarter more apiece than punch cards.

The touch screen, however, isn't approved yet in Florida (though two versions are in use in California), and there is a sense of urgency to strike while images of hanging chads and recounts until all hours and chanting protesters are fresh. The Legislature is being pressured to pay a large portion of the cost, but the financial support hasn't been strong in the early days of the session that began last week.

"Consider the confusion of the voters," LePore said this week. They may have seen punch cards in 2000, optical scan in 2002 and touch-screen in 2004. "If you think they're confused now," she said, trailing off.

The advantage of the optical scanner is that you know if you have made a mistake, say, choosing two candidates in one race, before you leave the polling place and you have a chance to fix it. The machine spits back the over-votes.

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