Ballots step backward?

Brenda Hawkins // Published June 18, 2008 in Collier Citzens Newspaper
Hanging chads, leaning chads, pregnant chads. Chad was a busy guy during Florida’s 2000 general election.

Those little snippets of paper, and how they were interpreted, kept the nation in an uproar for more than a month, as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on how to determine the winner of the Bush-Gore presidential race.

As a result, legislative election reform in 2002 steered Florida counties away from paper ballots, which had to be interpreted by canvassing boards, in favor of touch screen electronic voting systems.

That direction was reversed by Gov. Charlie Crist in May 2007, with the signing of House Bill 537 to establish a paper trail for voting. The bill required all Florida counties to abandon the touch screen machines in favor of paper ballots and a combination optical scanner/touch screen device to tabulate them.

It was a move that many elections officials, including Collier Elections Supervisor Jennifer Edwards, defined as a step backwards. Today, Edwards is cautiously optimistic.

“I have confidence it will work accurately, based on use in other counties,” she says of the latest polling device. “But, it is a concern that Florida’s 15 largest counties, representing more than half the voters in the state, have to make this change in the biggest election year ever experienced.”

Edwards predicts there may be long lines, extended wait times and some confusion with the advent of the new system. To avoid such confusion, the office is providing demonstrations and practice voting to as many groups and clubs as possible over the summer.

Members of the Golden Gate Area Civic Association, Golden Gate Estates Area Civic Association and the Collier County NAACP got to sample the goods during a forum June 9 at the Golden Gate Community Center.

“The biggest difference is the amount of paper they’re going to be using with this system, compared to the electronic system,” said GGACA President Rick Sims. “It’s not exactly ‘green.’ ”

The biggest difference at the polls will be the number of machines utilized. Instead of directly voting on several touch screen machines, which both contained and tabulated the ballots, voters will go to a booth where they’ll be given a ballpoint pen to blacken ovals on a paper ballot, before entering the ballot into a single optical scanner at their precincts.

The county will purchase 145 optical scanners at a cost of $5,775 each, compared to the 1,255 touch screen devices it purchased four years ago for $3,225 each, bringing the total investment for the two purchases to $6.1 million.

The retired touch screens — for which Collier County still owes $2 million — have virtually no value in the U.S. The Secretary of State is charged with disposing of the equipment overseas and will return any proceeds to the counties to hopefully offset that debt.

In addition to the cost of two-page primary and one-page general paper ballots for each of the county’s 180,000 registered voters, the county will incur the cost of storing those ballots for 24 months. Edwards estimates her office will need more than 1,000 square feet to do so, with additional space for subsequent election ballots.

Canvassing boards will also be busier due to the new voting system. Ballots with write-in votes will have to be retrieved from each collection bin to be manually counted, provided the write-in vote is deemed to be a valid one.

To avoid mistakes, voters must blacken the oval without going too far outside the lines. If a voter marks more than one oval for a race (called an overvote), the voter will have a choice of accepting the overvote or re-doing a ballot. Voters will not be notified if they undervote, or skip a race.

Visually impaired voters will continue to vote on one of 120 audio-enhanced touch screens the county plans to keep.

“This is like going from using the computer on your desk to using paper,” said Edwards. “Voters should be very careful, and bring their sample ballots to the polls. This is a big election, because it’s the first time since the ‘50s we’ve had a presidential election without an incumbent or a vice president on the ballot and there may be a higher turnout because the campaigning began so early.”

As to media reports on voting results prior to the closing of polls, Edwards urged all voters to exercise their right to vote, despite early predictions.

“Remember, there was only a 537-vote difference in Florida in 2000, so every vote does count,” she says.

To schedule a demonstration of the new optical scanner voting machine, or to request an absentee ballot, go to “contact us” at or call 252-8450.