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Vote glitches likely?

Floridians fear paperless polls worse than scads of chads

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.

More than 1.5 million people have registered to vote in Florida since the 2000 election, for a total of more than 10.3 million eligible to vote this year, state officials say.

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.

Add Florida's bitter partisan politics to the stew of voting technology uncertainty and the worries that loom largest aren't about software bugs or hardware glitches but rather the potential for electoral shenanigans.

It's no surprise, then, that black voters in the state are among the most distrustful of e-voting. They've experienced a disproportionate number of problems in elections — from felon voter purges that included non-convicts to early voting polling stations set up miles away from the nearest black neighborhood.

"The Republican Party has tried to disenfranchise us," said Addie Greene, a black Democratic commissioner for Palm Beach County. Greene helped the county purchase 5,000 Sequoia voting machines — then became an active opponent of paperless voting and is asking constituents to send in absentee ballots.

"Palm Beach County will create a stir nationwide that no one ever would believe . . . if we're disenfranchised again," she said.

Secretary of State Glenda Hood, Florida's top elections official, and other top Republicans accuse those who challenge the touch-screen machines' reliability of irrationally eroding Americans' faith in democracy. They insist that touch screens are as reliable as paper ballots, with Gov. Jeb Bush maintaining that e-voting critics have bought into "conspiracy theories" and lost their common sense.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups, meanwhile, have sued the state, arguing for better recount guidelines.

U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, a Boca Raton Democrat, sued and demanded that all counties produce paper records.

In testimony this past week in Fort Lauderdale, the attorney for county elections chiefs said Wexler was playing politics, trying to "squeeze one more vote out" and "regress" to the confusing recounts of the 2000 election.

Florida law requires a manual recount in any race with a victory margin of one-quarter of 1 percent or less. In April, Hood issued an order prohibiting manual recounts on touch screens. The rule was struck down after the ACLU suit. On Oct. 15, exasperated officials issued new guidelines for recounting virtual votes.

The rules require election administrators to install updated software that can search electronic ballot records and tally the number of ballots in which not every race was voted on.

County election supervisors must print out — like a cash register tally of a day's sales — a detailed record of all incomplete ballots to see if they match the number of incomplete ballots the computer said existed when polls closed.

If the numbers don't match, supervisors will recount up to two more times.

It's unclear what would happen if thousands of votes went missing, but election officials insist the safeguards are adequate — for the initial counts and for recounts.

"These systems go through rigorous tests, and before each and every election they are checked again," said Hood spokeswoman Alia Faraj. "When the tests are completed, they're sealed and secured, and the seal is only broken on election day. The systems are working the way they're supposed to."

But computer scientists say bugs or hardware failures could alter or erase votes, causing the machines to record bogus data even before a voter touches the screen.

"We have a saying in computer science: Garbage in, garbage out," said Avi Rubin, a Johns Hopkins University computer scientist and expert on electronic voting. "If you have a machine with a bug or glitch, printing out the incorrect votes is an exercise in futility and an absolute waste of time."