Touch-screen voting ruled OK in Florida

Published October 25, 2004 8:09PM (EDT)

Of the many pre-election lawsuits hanging over the race in Florida, one of the most important has been resolved. On Monday morning, a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale dismissed Congressman Robert Wexler's lawsuit demanding that electronic voting machines used in the state produce voter-verifiable paper trails that can be manually recounted in the case of a close election. In a lengthy opinion (PDF), U.S. District Judge James I. Cohn said that based upon the evidence he heard during three days of hearings last week, he saw no legal basis for scrapping paperless machines in the state. But in a clause that pleased many paper-trail advocates, Cohn, a Bush appointee to the federal bench, added that "the preferable voting system would include a paper printout reviewed by the voter to ensure that it contains his or her selections."

In an interview after the decision was handed down, Wexler, a Democrat whose district includes Palm Beach and Broward Counties, said that despite the loss, he took comfort in the judge's conclusion that machines that produce a paper trail are better than machines that do not. "For legal reasons he doesn't believe that we established the requisite legal case to warrant the court to intervene," Wexler said of Cohn's decision. "I think the court was reluctant to act seven days before the election. And that's really the fault of Governor Jeb Bush, who effectively ran the clock out for meaningful reform for 2004."

Wexler plans to appeal the decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, but he concedes that nothing will come of that effort before next Tuesday. This raises another question: For several months, Wexler and his supporters have been telling voters not to trust paperless machines -- so what should people do now that they have no choice but to use these systems?

They have to make do, Wexler says. "If they have requested their absentee ballots they can use those, but if they haven't, which is the situation I'm in -- I will go and vote on the electronic machines," Wexler told War Room. "I encourage everyone to go and vote on the electronic machines. The one thing that needs to be the result of all of this focus on these machines is, there needs to be the largest turnout in history in South Florida. And I think there will be. Yesterday in Boca Raton, there was a 20,000 person turnout for John Kerry at an outdoor rally in hot weather. As far as I know it was the largest reported political rally in Palm Beach County in the history of the world." Whatever worries people may have about the voting machines, Wexler says, nobody wants to miss out on a chance to vote in this election.

One additional note on electronic voting machines: Since late last week War Room has received several warnings of a serious problem with the touch-screen machines being used during the early voting period in Travis County, Texas. Our correspondents inevitably cite the experiences of friends of friends of friends who've been to the polls in the county -- a progressive bastion that includes Austin -- and, while attempting to vote a straight-party Democratic ballot, somehow, to their shock and everlasting suspicion, ended up selecting George Bush in the presidential race. To many online, the Travis County story is being seen as proof that touch-screen voting systems aren't to be trusted at the polls this year.

But don't panic; there's nothing wrong in Travis County. Dana DeBeauvoir, the county clerk, told War Room that only one voter has reported this mysterious vote-switching problem, and that voter seems to have just been a bit clumsy with the machine's buttons (the voter managed to cast the correct ballot in the end). "If you look at the e-mail it seems like a hundred people had this problem," she says, "but I only got one report." While local media debunked the story last week, DeBeauvoir's office continues to receive calls from concerned voters. Indeed, the story might say more about the psychic health of the electorate than the mechanical health of the machines. "People are so passionate and nervous, there's just such high emotion running around this election," she notes. "I don't think at this point it takes much to put people on edge."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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