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Tech glitches don't mar Florida vote

A touch-screen machine sputters and some optical scanners fail, but officials credit computer technology with delivering the state's first smooth election in more than two years.

A touch-screen voting machine broke down, and a handful of optical ballot scanners malfunctioned. But the day after polls closed, Florida officials credited computer technology with delivering the state's first smooth election in more than two years.

Florida elections officials were on the hot seat Tuesday, after technical difficulties in the state had thrown the 2000 presidential election into uncertainty--and eventually to the Supreme Court--and problems last year caused polls to open late in some counties.

But more than the state's reputation was at stake, as the nation scrutinized the touch-screen technology meant to banish the specter of hanging chads to the history books.

Calling Tuesday's election a "great, great day for Florida," the secretary of state's office hailed Florida's new computerized voting systems for improving the accuracy and efficiency of the tallies.

"There is no question that the technology that is available can really improve the process of people voting and making sure that their votes count," said David Host, representative for the Florida secretary of state. "In particular, the new technology can do a great deal to reduce the possibility for voter error in the process, which makes voting easier, more user-friendly and reliable."

Along with those benefits, Host said, will come new responsibilities for training poll workers and paying attention to systems and software.

Tuesday morning's most significant technical glitch came as a touch-screen voting machine fell out of alignment. The secretary of state's office would not disclose the effect of that faulty alignment but said the system's ability to double-check votes before casting them would have prevented anyone from entering an unintended choice.

Omaha, Neb.-based Election Systems and Software provided the touch-screen machine, according to the secretary of state's office. The company did not return calls.

Optical scanners meant to process paper ballots and double-check them for undervotes and overvotes went out of service in Brevard, Seminole, Duval and Orange counties. In one case, memory cards were switched between precincts, but officials replaced them even before polls opened.

In addition to re-electing Republican Gov. Jeb Bush over his nearest challenger, Democrat Bill McBride, Floridians decided races for the U.S. House of Representatives, both chambers of the state legislature, and state courts, and voted on amendments to the state constitution.

Under scrutiny
Because of the international notoriety it gained in the 2000 presidential election, Florida's election system has been under intense scrutiny this year and last. On Tuesday, Miami-Dade County became the first U.S. jurisdiction ever to be observed by the nonpartisan Center for Democracy, which typically monitors elections in less-established democracies like those of Nicaragua, Russia and the Philippines.

But new electronic voting systems are cropping up in pockets throughout the country. Three of California's 58 counties are now using touch-screen voting machines, including the debut Tuesday of systems in Alameda. Other systems under scrutiny by electronic voting advocates and critics include those in Dallas, Houston, Maryland and Georgia.

Internationally, Brazil just conducted its first entirely electronic national election.

Elections analysts say most of the new systems are missing a crucial fail-safe mechanism: a paper trail that can provide a means of double-checking the vote without needing access to the systems provider's proprietary software.

The scarcity of those kinds of paper-based backups has caused electronic voting to remain the exception rather than the rule in perhaps the world's most technologically developed democracy, said one electronic voting skeptic.

"The real news is that most of our election officials aren't clamoring to move to touch-screen systems," said Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, an advocacy group. "If we're going to deploy touch-screen voting, it needs to include a voter-verified paper trail...Without a paper trail, the technology is not transparent enough."