Election Law @ Moritz

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Edward B. Foley
Free & Fair is a collection of writings by Edward B. Foley, one of the nation's preeminent experts on election law.

Information and Analysis

Sarasota County Focal Point of Electronic Voting Critique

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November 20, 2006

Debra Milberg, Moritz Class of 2008, prepared this analysis. Her previous reports on this race can be found here.

Earlier today, the Florida Elections Canvassing Commission certified the results of the manual and machine recounts in FL-13. Following the recount, Republican Vern Buchanan still outpolled Democrat Christine Jennings by 369 votes. As previously noted, Jennings filed a contest action shortly after the official certification.

Meanwhile, the ongoing trouble with touch-screen electronic voting machines evident while awaiting the FL-13 election to be certified has cast serious doubt over this new trend in election administration. Some voting experts are calling the manual and machine recounts in Sarasota County almost pointless. Since Sarasota County uses electronic voting machines with no paper ballot printouts for verification, the “recount” procedure is merely re-running the machine count. Even with all the concern about “chads” following the presidential election in 2000, at least voter intent could sometimes be determined by various “chad” positions. This is the purpose of a manual recount – to determine voter intent if the machine counters failed to record the vote. It seems that with electronic voting machines, the whole purpose of having a manual recount is lost without a paper trail.

Critics say the effort to audit Sarasota County's election results illustrates the pitfalls of relying on computers to both record votes and tabulate them, without the benefit of a backup paper record reviewed by individual voters. One computer scientist, writing in a blog, compared the county's recent recount last week to verifying a statement in a document stored in a computer by printing it out and reading it out loud -- an exercise he called "silly".

So what are the alternatives? Critics of touch-screen election voting are pushing a return to paper ballots, either counted by hand or by optical scan machines. The optical scan machine option involves paper ballots that are counted using optical scan machines located in precincts, where the ballot can be scanned before the voter leaves to make sure there are no problems. Other critics are advocating a return to all-paper, hand-counted ballots in small precincts. But the whole point of touch-screen machines is to prevent classic issues of vote-tampering that can occur with paper ballots. Historically, paper ballots have been tampered with and lost. And there have been problems with optical-scan machines, too. Paper ballots are vulnerable to overvotes, which are impossible on touch-screens.

The formality of a machine recount without a paper trail has done nothing to explain the 18,000 vote undercount in Sarasota County. With the lure of modern voting technology, it seems necessary to balance the speed and convenience of electronic voting machines against the potential compromise of voter intent with no verifiable means for a recount.