TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The state set a court-ordered rule for recounting touch-screen ballots in close elections Friday, but voter-rights groups complained the changes fell far short of what is needed to ensure a fair vote.
In cases where a manual recount is required, the rule calls on county elections supervisors to review each electronic ballot image to see if the number of so-called undervotes, those on which no candidate was chosen, matches the undervote totals given by the machine.
If the numbers do not match up, the machines will be checked for problems. If the discrepancy remains, elections officials will rely on the original machine count.
State law requires a manual recount if the election is decided by less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the vote, as it was in the 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
Secretary of State Glenda Hood (search) had issued a rule barring manual recounts for touch-screen votes, but a judge in August ruled the manual-recount law applies no matter what voting technology is used.
Hood's office released the new recount rules late Friday, 18 days before the Nov. 2 presidential election. Voter activists complained that their proposal was ignored.
"It seems like every time they have a decision to make, somehow they find a way not to come down on the side of voters or the side of protecting the right to vote," said Howard Simon, executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union (search) in Florida.
More than half of Florida's 9.8 million registered voters are in the 15 counties that use touch-screen machines. The rest use optical scan ballots.
A coalition including the ACLU, Florida Common Cause (search), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (search) and the American Way Foundation (search) wanted touch-screen voters to have the option of using a paper ballot. They also wanted to create a process to make sure all votes cast match the number of people who voted, and to have a federal court oversee a recount if one were necessary.
Coalition members met with Department of State officials Tuesday to present their proposal. The state offered a draft of its proposal and said it would welcome suggestions from the coalition, but it implemented the rule before the activists responded.
"Our general counsel was quite clear at the meeting that we needed comments ASAP," department spokeswoman Alia Faraj said.
The state did not take up the suggestion of providing the paper ballot option, saying it didn't make logistical sense. It also did not agree to give up oversight of a recount.
Meanwhile, in West Palm Beach, election officials counted every ballot cast on electronic voting machines in a test postponed by computer trouble Tuesday.
"This shows we are ready for an election in Palm Beach County," said Theresa LePore, the county's election supervisor.
Critics said the computer trouble shows why a paper trail is needed for touch-screen machines. They say there is no way to verify touch-screen votes and question whether undervotes are the result of a deliberate choice by the voter or the machine simply losing the vote.
Also Friday, U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King of Miami urged quick work in a lawsuit against Florida's largest counties over the rejection of more than 10,000 voter registration forms that officials say were improperly filled out.
The lawsuit, filed by a coalition of unions, challenges state rules that let counties disqualify people who provided a signature affirming their eligibility to vote but failed to list an identification number, such as from a driver's license, or failed to check boxes affirming they were citizens, were mentally competent and were not felons.
The lawsuit alleges the practice disproportionately affects minorities. Nearly 45 percent of the challenged forms in one county, Duval, came from blacks.