Monday, December 31, 2007

Florida tests out print-on-demand paper ballots

Well, we're about to enter a major election year, so why not roll out some brand-spanking-new voting technology to test on residents of the most notoriously voting-inept state in the whole union? At least, that must have been what Florida legislators were thinking when 27 counties decided to implement a new print-on-demand ballot system to create the optical scan ballots right as voters need them.

While the optical scan system is quite tried-and-true, the new machines will create ballots customized for a voter's particular party (useful in primaries where, in FL you're only allowed to vote for the party you're registered in). This is supposed to further decrease confusion and ballot clutter, which is good. Of course, as anybody who's ever worked on a big kiosk project knows, putting printers out in the real world = all sorts of problems including paper jams, misfeeds and the like. What happens to a paper ballot that has been slightly mis-printed when you run it through the optical scanner? What happens when a machine jams up? Will all polling stations have backup equipment? Will pollworker training be better than it was for e-voting initiatives in 2000 and 2004 (God I hope so)?

Aside from simplifying each voter's ballot, the major reason for implementing the print on demand system is actually cost reduction, according to this article in the St Petersberg Times. Apparently the heavy paper stock that the optical ballots require is rather expensive, so reducing waste ballots by only printing the exact number and type required will allow counties using the system to be more efficient (one legislator expected that they would have saved $45,000 and 600 staff hours had the system been in place for the 2006 elections).

Admittedly, anything that doesn't rely on Windows-based touch screen computers and lacking any kind of verifiable paper trail is going to be a big improvement over the 2004 Florida systems. Still, introducing complexity in a state where people couldn't tell the difference between "Left Side" and "Right Side" in 2000 isn't necessarily a good idea.

We'll get our first peek at the new tech in late January when Florida holds its presidential primaries.

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