Good News for Election Activists in Sarasota County, Florida


Paper ballot question for Sarasota question appealed by state
DAVID ROYSE / Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The state agency that oversees elections is appealing a Sarasota judge's decision to allow voters there to choose whether the county should have a voting system with a paper record in 2008.

Secretary of State Sue Cobb said Monday that the matter needs to be decided to maintain uniform rules for what constitutes a ballot.

The question of whether to use a voting system that includes a "paper trail" in the county will still be put to voters there Nov. 7.

State officials aren't asking judges to keep the question off the ballot, saying that even if voters say yes, there will still be almost two years to work through the legal ramifications and to void the vote if an appeal is successful.

Circuit Judge Robert B. Bennett Jr. ruled earlier this month in favor of a group, Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections, that wants an auditable trail of paper records created by voting machines. The group collected enough signatures to get the measure before voters, but the county fought it, saying it was unconstitutional.

But Bennett disagreed, and after his ruling the Sarasota County Commission held an emergency vote to put the initiative on the November ballot.

Sarasota County uses touchscreen machines. The proposed change to the county's charter that voters will consider doesn't specify whether the county would have to continue to use electronic touchscreen machines or switch to the optical scan systems that many Florida counties use, which already have paper ballots. It specifies only that whatever system is used, it must create a paper ballot that voters can later inspect. So far, no touchscreen systems certified for use by the state do that.

Cobb said Monday that by filing the appeal the Department of State wasn't making a statement about the validity of requiring "paper trails," but rather trying to comply with state law on what is and what isn't a ballot.

Kindra Muntz, the head of Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections, said it doesn't seem that way.

"It does seem to be that the bureaucrats in Tallahassee are threatened by the people of a county saying, 'We want verified elections,'" Muntz said. "We're impinging on their turf."

The Department of State asked the state appeals court in Lakeland, where it filed the appeal, to send the question directly to the state Supreme Court as a matter of vital importance that needs to be settled on a statewide basis. It will be up to the appeals court whether to do so or to rule itself.

Cobb and the agency's lawyer on the case, Peter Antonacci, said state law defines what is a touchscreen ballot.

"The official ballot for the counties that have touchscreen is found in the touchscreen operation," Antonacci said.

The proposed change, however, says that the paper ballot would be the "official ballot" and would be subject to audits.

Antonacci said that would create a conflict, where some voters voting for a legislative candidate, for example, in a county bordering Sarasota would have their official ballot be electronic, while Sarasota County voters casting a vote in the same race would have an official ballot that would be on paper.

Muntz said voters want paper ballots and the decision on whether to use them should come down simply to that.

"We're supposed to accept on faith the results of a touchscreen with closed proprietary software and no record of your vote?" Muntz said. "Why can't bureaucrats in Florida wake up and smell the bacon?"

Fifteen Florida counties use paperless touchscreen voting systems, while the other 52 Florida counties use an "optical scan" system in which voters mark their choice on a paper ballot that is then fed through and read by a machine.

Last week Democratic U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Delray Beach filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking to overturn a federal court that said Florida could use electronic voting machines that don't leave a paper trail.

In 2004, Wexler sued Florida's secretary of state and Palm Beach County's elections supervisor, alleging the state disenfranchised voters by approving the machines that don't create a paper record for use in a recount in close elections. A federal appeals court ruled in June that the paperless machines don't violate Floridians' constitutional rights. Wexler argues that differing types of machine mean voters are treated differently depending on where they live.

The federal appeals court acknowledged that a recount would differ in counties using touch-screen machines but noted it did not rise to the level of unequal treatment of voters.