Secretary of state visits Broward elections office, gives Snipes good marks

Anthony Man // Published April 11, 2008 in Sun-Sentinel
The idea of paper ballots, which are coming in the August primary and November general election, seems simple and trouble free.

Secretary of State Kurt Browning and Broward Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes said today they're trying to anticipate every potential problem to get as close as possible to error-free elections.

Browning is making a series of visits to supervisors of elections in the 15 counties - representing more than half of Florida's population - that are scrapping touch-screen voting and moving to paper ballots tabulated by optical scanners. The other counties already use paper ballots.

Named secretary of state last year by Gov. Charlie Crist, Browning was supervisor of elections in Pasco County for 26 years. His biggest concern about the switch to paper ballots, required last year by Crist and the Legislature, is voter education.

The idea of paper ballots seems simple, but Browning said voters need education.

"Although it's a very simple concept of darkening in an oval, it's something that this secretary and I'm sure this supervisor are not going to take for granted. We have too much at stake to not really ramp up our training effort," he said.

Snipes also said voting will be smoother if people are educated and know how they are going to vote before they get to the polling places.

Paper ballots bring the prospect of more bottlenecks and lines.

People need to get signed in, they'll be issued a ballot, they'll go to a privacy booth to fill out the ballot, and then they'll get in line to insert the ballot into the tabulator.

There's only one tabulator planned for every precinct, Snipes said. And if the machine detects a problem with the ballot, that could slow things down as voters decide what they want to do.

With voter turnout historically high for this year's presidential primaries, some places across the country have run out of ballots - something that couldn't happen with the electronic touch screen voting machines.

Browning doesn't think supervisors of elections should massively over-print ballots, and he's not worried that they will run out. Counties have the ability to use ballot on demand devices that can print ballots on short notice, even on Election Day. That could alleviate problems if shortages started to develop.

Snipes said she's planning as if voter turnout will hit 80 percent. Printing all those ballots means elections will be more expensive.

In Broward, Snipes said it costs about 29 cents to print each ballot, depending on the number of pages. She expects to spend $2 million for the August primary and another $2 million for the November general election for ballot printing.

Browning brought a team from the state Elections Division with him to review the county's preparations.

After meetings at the Supervisor of Elections Office, Browning pronounced the local effort as good, though he'd like to see Broward and all the other counties farther along in the testing of the thousands of new optical scanners that are being deployed around the state.

Browning said all the 15 counties moving from touch-screen voting to paper ballots read by optical scanners now have their equipment, but testing hasn't happened because they were focused on the January presidential primary.

Broward has had the new devices since November, and plans to begin the unpacking and testing later this month, Snipes said.

Besides his visit to the Elections Office voting equipment center in Lauderhill, Browning spoke with reporters in Fort Lauderdale and appeared briefly before the County Commission.

There, he praised Snipes: "Broward County is very fortunate to have Dr. Snipes. As supervisor of elections, Dr. Snipes does a great job from our perspective as to conducting the elections in Broward. She and her team are very committed to ensuring that Broward's elections are conducted at a very high level of professionalism."

He planned to visit Miami-Dade County this afternoon and was in Palm Beach County last week.