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Daytona Beach News Journal editorial

December 5, 2005

 

Don't give in to state's dawdling for Diebold

 

Later this month, the Volusia County Council has an ugly decision to make.

 

County officials face a Jan. 1 deadline to buy handicapped-accessible voting machines. They can opt for touch-screen equipment manufactured by Diebold (the same company that makes the elections equipment the county already owns) but that don't produce paper ballots. Or they can scrap the entire system and turn to a Diebold competitor, Election Systems & Software.

 

Bad faith on the part of state officials seems to be forcing the county toward the second, more expensive purchase -- the option Council Chairman Frank Bruno already advocates. Council members have a right to be furious at state election officials' reluctance to certify more reliable machines.

 

There's a case to be made for defying federal and state mandates and taking the matter to court. The county stands to lose $700,000 in federal money if it doesn't meet the deadline set by the Help America Vote Act, but it's less than the county would spend to buy any handicapped-accessible system. The next election will be nine and a half months away by the time the council meets to discuss elections equipment, so there's time -- just barely -- to seek an injunction forcing the state to approve a paper-ballot system.

 

A lawsuit would force state officials to explain why they're forcing counties to buy non-verifiable and four-times-more-expensive touch-screen systems. Respected experts like long-term Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho say they have no doubt that state officials dragged their heels approving a paper-ballot system, and they should be required to justify their reluctance.

 

If the suit failed, the county would still have time to buy machines for voters with handicaps.

 

But the council may balk at declaring war on Florida's Department of State the week before Christmas. A more reasonable -- though very expensive -- choice is to buy the ES&S system for up to $2.5 million. The deal would initially provide touch-screens for voters with handicaps, but would include Automark, a device that allows voters with a wide variety of handicaps to mark paper ballots. If the state doesn't approve Automark, ES&S agrees to take its system back and refund the county's money.

 

Ironically, the Automark system would work with the Diebold Accuvote systems the county uses now, but elections advocates say Diebold has threatened to sue any county that uses Automark-created ballots with Diebold ballot scanners.

 

Beyond the heavy-handedness, there are reasons council members should reject the Diebold touch-screen system. The machine does assist blind voters, but it's of less use to those who can't use hands or a mouthstick to register their votes.

 

Most important, voters have no way to ensure their vote is cast the way they intend. Tests in other states show significant failure rates in the touch-screen systems Diebold is peddling, so accuracy is a concern.

 

Even during the 2000 election debacle, Volusia officials defended elections accuracy by rushing to complete paper-ballot recounts. Council members have already rejected the Diebold touch-screen system for handicapped voters, citing concerns over the lack of a paper trail.

 

This is no time to back down. Volusia County voters -- with handicaps or without -- deserve a fair, reliable balloting system. For now, it looks as if the ES&S system is the best option.

 

2005 News-Journal Corporation

 

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