Friday, October 22, 2004

Florida Voters Set to 'Take to the Streets'

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. - Edward Bitet fought in World War II, built affordable housing for veterans and taught sixth grade. When the Long Island native retired to Florida, he fulfilled another civic duty by becoming a poll worker. But Bitet, 77, isn't volunteering this year — he says he doesn't trust Palm Beach County's electronic voting machines. He walked out of a county demonstration of touch-screen terminals convinced that software bugs could wreak havoc on Nov. 2.

"We lost an election four years ago because they fooled around with the paper ballots and couldn't recount them," said Bitet, a Democrat. "Now we're moving to a system without paper, and they won't even have the ballots to recount. I can't be a part of this." With polls showing nearly equal numbers of Florida voters for President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, the election's outcome may again hinge on a Florida recount.
And the more that Floridians learn about how voting machines work, the more they question whether the 15 counties with paperless voting systems can accurately count and recount votes.

Problems in those counties — home to just over half the registered voters in the crucial swing state — could delay the results for days or weeks, and even force the courts to step in again and choose the next president.
Given Florida's botched election in 2000, when the Supreme Court halted a recount after 36 days and handed a 537-vote victory to Bush, political tension is palpable in the Sunshine State. Election officials are hoping for a landslide so big that even thousands of deleted or misrecorded ballots won't change the outcome.
But if this proves to be another ultra-close vote, many critics of electronic balloting — including the many Democrats who believe the 2000 election was stolen — say they'll take to the streets.

"I was angry last time. This time it'd be quadruple the anger," said Francois Jean, 27, whose ramshackle ranch house in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood is festooned with Kerry placards. "The system we were supposed to believe in failed us — like we didn't even vote, like we were aliens from outer space who didn't count."
David Niven, a political science professor at Florida Atlantic University, expects massive demonstrations if exit polling is close and lawsuits and technical problems overshadow a clear victory.

"I don't know if there will be rioting in the streets with pitch forks and torches — after all, many of these people are 75 years old," Niven said. "But it's fair to say that their level of anger will grow exponentially from four years ago."

This time, the outrage wouldn't be over dimpled, pregnant and hanging chads; the state banned the maligned punch cards after 2000. Instead, it would almost certainly be directed at those who decided on the touch-screen machines.

Computer scientists, practically as a profession, don't trust them — not without a range of safeguards that aren't in place for this election. They say the touch screens now in use could alter or delete votes — and that without paper copies, voters will never know if their votes counted.


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