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Florida chucks touch-screen balloting

Learns that technology is no panacea

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Florida, the epicentre of hopelessly confused US elections, is chucking touch-screen ballot machines in favour of optical scanners, the Associated Press reports.

Governor Charlie Crist (Republican) announced the new initiative on Thursday, and called on the legislature to authorise the needed $32m in extra funds that the changeover will require. The legislature is expected to comply.

The Governor's proposal would require all Florida counties to have a mechanism in place for establishing a voting paper trail in time for the 2008 national elections.

Florida made world headlines during the 2000 elections by failing to perform a satisfactory recount, thanks to its now infamous punch-card "butterfly ballots". Overvoting was a serious problem, and it became necessary for officials to divine voter intent by examining the chads - the bits of paper encircled by perforation - to see which had been pushed farther, under a dubious assumption that more pressure on a chad must indicate a voter's greater desire to see the corresponding candidate in office.

The butterfly ballots were confusing and difficult to read, and had to be aligned precisely in a template in order to work properly. Touch screens were meant to solve these problems with a much simpler interface and protection against overvoting.

But voters found the remedy as bad as the original malady. The machines often malfunctioned, and in a situation where the data is suspect, the idea of a recount is preposterous: one can only read the same bad data twice. The machines were also deployed without any consistent security protocols in place, while numerous security snafus surfaced, further eroding voter trust.

So now it's back to basics, with a paper ballot that can be marked clearly, verified by the voter, and collected for a recount. Of course, when one gets to thinking about it, one has to wonder: if a clearly marked paper ballot is the best insurance against mechanical snafus and uncertainties, why do we bother with the intervening technology in the first place? ®

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