Florida considers election funding plans

Florida considers election funding plans

Poll shows support for touch-screen system, but task force recommends less-expensive optical-scanning machines

BY DENNIS M. BLANK | SPECIAL TO GCN

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.'Faced with two proposals for statewide voting systems, legislators started early last month to look for the money to pay for the costly overhaul.

Secretary of State Katherine Harris proposed a $200 million high-tech system that would be in place in all 67 counties by the 2004 presidential election.

'I want voting systems that will make the will of the voter self-evident,' Harris said. 'I believe very strongly in the principle of a statewide election system.'

A recent poll of 625 registered voters showed that 66 percent support the idea of a touch-screen system. But Harris has not endorsed the adoption of touch-screen units, which still have to be certified by her office.

Cheaper alternative

A governor's task force recommended spending $20 million to retrofit 26 counties with optical-scanning machines. The task force suggested that if the machines were leased, all 67 counties could be using them in the 2002 election.

The move to fix Florida's county systems stemmed from the controversy over the close presidential election last fall, in which hundreds of punch card ballots in southern Florida counties were questioned.

'We don't want to go through another election with punch cards,' said Kurt Browning, supervisor of elections for Pasco County. 'We need to have a uniform precinct technology and have the state provide some level of funding so we can have it place by 2002.'

Tight budget

Harris acted on the recommendation of the State Association of Supervisors of Elections, whose members voted in January in favor of a statewide system.

Even so, legislators are faced with budget constraints. The Senate has earmarked $20 million and the House $23 million.


Florida should have electronic voting systems statewide, Secretary of State Katherine Harris says.
'There is no question in my mind that the punch card machine is on its way out of Dodge,' said Sen. Jim Sebesta. 'The only question is what do we do with the potentially bigger problem of trying to make this big of a change all at once.'

'I don't think it's a responsibility of the state,' said Sen. Bill Posey, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee. 'I don't think the state should have a role in it. No county wants to bite the bullet and pay for these things, but some counties already have spent the money to do this.'

House Speaker Tom Feeney said it is unfair for counties to foot the bill for new equipment and suggested the state loan money to those that want to make changes.

Counties normally pay for election equipment without state assistance. The Florida Association of Counties, however, said it favors a 'new revenue source for uniform election ballots and tabulation devices for national, state and regional elections.'

Jim Smith, chairman of the governor's task force, said there should be a subsidy for the counties.

'I am hopeful that whatever they do with subsidies for counties, they do it across the board so that counties that have invested in the technology get some of their money back,' he said.

David Leahy, supervisor of elections for Miami-Dade County, which uses punch card ballots, favors a touch-screen system. Even if optical-scanning units were approved and financed, he questions whether the manufacturers could have them in place by the 2002 election and have enough support staff on hand to aid county election officials.

Moreover, because the county prints ballots in Spanish and Creole, he foresees possible complaints of discrimination. Someone could claim that they asked for a Creole ballot, for example, and didn't receive it.

In a touch-screen system, voters choose the language they want with the push of a button.

A poll conducted in February by the Orlando Sentinel indicated that voters are willing to spend tax money for an efficient system.

'Voters want to spend money to upgrade the voting system,' said pollster J. Bradford Coker. 'They may disagree about who won and whether it was fair, but voters on both sides of the aisle want to make sure history does not repeat itself.'

The touch-screen systems range from $3,200 to $6,000 each and are made by the same manufacturers that now provide punch card and optical-scanning units.

The three main manufacturers are Global Election Systems of McKinney, Texas; Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment of Jamestown, N.Y., and Fidlar Doubleday Inc. of Rock Island, Ill.

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