Paper ballot deal disappoints

June 8, 2008

by Catherine DolinskiThe Tampa Tribune
 

TALLAHASSEE — What's the use of paper ballots if no one looks at them? That is the question that election watchdogs continue to press, even as the state's election supervisors race to implement the 2007 election law requiring every Florida county to vote on paper ballots.

Kindra Muntz of Sarasota was among the activists who cheered last spring as Gov. Charlie Crist signed the paper-trail legislation. But she also warned that the job would remain half-finished until the state beefed up its standards for auditing ballots by hand after elections to ensure against tampering and foul-ups. It is a safeguard that Florida still lacks.

"A paper trail is one thing, but paper alone is not the answer," said Muntz, president of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections. "We're not looking for something to wallpaper our walls with."

Even Secretary of State Kurt Browning wants to strengthen the post-election audit law. But changes proposed by House and Senate Democrats went nowhere this spring, leaving activists frustrated and fearful that, with a presidential election looming, Florida's election system remains vulnerable to disaster.

At issue is not whether to audit paper ballots by hand, but which ones to check, how many and when.

The 2007 paper-trail legislation includes a new audit provision requiring counties to conduct manual, public audits of votes cast in one randomly selected race, in at least 1 percent of the voting precincts, but no more than 2 percent. The audits are to take place after certification of the results, leaving court action as the sole remedy available to candidates and voters if an audit turns up problems.

While not the toughest standard among the states, it nonetheless put Florida once again at the forefront of election reform. According to the Verified Voting Foundation, only 18 states have any post-election audit requirement for their paper ballots, 13 require a paper trail only, and 19 require neither paper ballots nor audits.

But critics arguing that Florida's 1 percent auditing standard is inadequate say that it was set arbitrarily, with no science behind it.

Browning says they are right.

He stressed, however, that the purpose of auditing is to confirm whether voting machines functioned correctly -- not to determine winners and losers in close races. That is the purview of recounts, though "we no more manually recount any ballot in Florida than I'm an astronaut," he said, criticizing the current law for authorizing only manual recounts of undervotes and overvotes, where either a vote was not registered or too many votes were registered in a race.

Browning said he wants lawmakers next year to authorize full manual recounts in races where the margin is one quarter of 1 percent, the same standard that now triggers manually counting overvotes and undervotes.

He wants to improve the post-election audit law, too -- though, ironically, he is busy now fighting efforts by one county's voters to bolster audit requirements for their own precincts.

In November 2006, Sarasota County voters adopted a charter amendment proposed by the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections, headed by Muntz. Among other things, the proposal requires post-election audits of 5 percent of voting precincts, prior to election certification.

Muntz said her group chose the 5 percent standard based on input from election watchdogs like the Verified Voters Foundation and technical experts like Rebecca Mercuri, a software security engineer and who has testified before Congress about voting machine standards.

By coincidence, the charter amendment appeared on the same ballot as the congressional contest between Christine Jennings and Rep. Vern Buchanan, in which more than 18,000 ballots cast lacked a vote in that race. A congressional investigation did not end until early this year, when testing by the U.S. Government Accountability Office showed that Sarasota's voting machines had functioned properly.

After the 2006 election, Browning and Sarasota Elections Supervisor Kathy Dent filed suit to throw out the charter amendment -- not because they object to more auditing, but because the Sarasota rule would conflict with state election laws and create a "lack of uniformity" among the counties.

Muntz's group counters that election procedures fall under the county's jurisdiction through home rule, and that given the varying machines and vendors used among the counties, little uniformity exists now. Her group prevailed initially in circuit court; Browning and Dent won on appeal. The two sides now await a ruling from the state Supreme Court, which heard their arguments last month.

While voting reform activists generally agree on having more post-election auditing, they do not necessarily agree on how to do it.

This spring, the Florida Voters Coalition pushed for a state model that would audit a portion of ballots determined by variables such as the margin of victory in a race and number of votes cast. To date, only New Jersey has adopted such a standard.

The voters coalition worked last October with election officials and experts to devise a new standard for "statistically significant" auditing.

Their initial proposal: audit all races for federal office and those for governor and lieutenant governor, Cabinet offices and the Legislature, plus two more statewide elections. The number of ballots audited would depend on several factors including the number cast in that race and the margin of victory; the tighter the race, the more votes would be checked.

Browning faulted the proposal for being too expansive and complicated. In some years and counties, he said, such a law would require that as many as 14 different races be audited.

But the advocates found Democratic sponsors for their idea: Rep. Tony Sasso of Cocoa Beach and Sen. Charlie Justice of St. Petersburg. They also eventually hit upon a compromise that Browning said he could accept: a 3 percent audit of three races, one of which would have to be the presidential race in the years for that election. The proposal would require completion by the seventh day following certification, before the end of the period in which a candidate can contest the results.