St. Petersburg Times
published January 10, 2001

Editorial:  The Future of Voting

Though the governor's task force on elections has just begun its work, one recommendation is already sure to result: no more punch cards. As the Nov. 7 election showed, and as Hillsborough's Pam Iorio reminded the panel on behalf of her fellow election supervisors, "We cannot rest the fate of our democracy on the back of outdated technology." Governments no longer use punch cards for any other purpose. Neither do citizens.

It is not so obvious, however, what technology should follow. One choice is the optically scanned ballot, similar to an SAT test answer sheet, that is read and counted at the polls when the voter completes it. This lets the voter correct such mistakes as voting twice for one office. The other option is touch-screen computers, which are virtually foolproof but cost so much more to buy as to make some supervisors and task force members nervous about asking the Legislature to help pay for them.

Speaking for the supervisors' association, Iorio recommended a two-step approach: (1.)Immediately provide precinct-based optical scanners to the 26 counties that still use punch cards, paper ballots or lever-operated voting machines. (2.) Commit Florida to touch-screen voting "before the end of this decade."

A decade was more than time enough to put Americans on the moon, and it should be more than enough to provide all Florida citizens with the best possible election technology. But there are drawbacks to this phased-in approach. Some counties would continue to use inferior optical-scanning systems that invite errors or lose votes nearly as often as punch cards do. And as memories of the infamous 2000 election began to fade, so might the interest of legislators and county commissioners in touch screens.

"I'm not confident the state or counties will see the urgency in 10 years to do that," said Kurt Browning, Pasco's elections supervisor and a member of the task force. He proposed a plausible compromise Tuesday under which the Division of Elections would decertify punch cards -- effectively prohibiting their further use -- and counties would be given state aid to help purchase new technology of their choice. Whatever the choice, however, it would have to meet minimum performance standards set by the state. The task force would be prudent to pursue this.

Browning favors touch-screen voting, which requires no printed ballots except for write-ins and would lend itself best of all to replacing the second primary with an instant runoff in which voters simultaneously mark first and second choices. Florida needs to at least consider an instant runoff for general elections as well as nominations now that minor parties and independent candidates have easier access to the November ballot. Otherwise, candidates will be elected with less than a majority -- in some cases much less -- of the final vote.

"If a plurality vote is sufficient for election in the general election," argued Iorio, who wants to be rid of the second primary "why is it not sufficient to achieve a party nomination?" It was a good question, but it raised a better one: Should any election ever be decided by less than a majority of those voting? Not if it can be helped. This should become one of the guiding principles that guides the task force as it looks into what improved voting technology can do.