Fate of $25M e-voting system in Miami-Dade dangling

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Article from PC-Welt. Miami-Dade blew $25 million on DRE voting machines, which caused the cost of elections to rise from $1-2 million to $6-7 million. And it screwed up several elections too. And it yields no paper trail, and the cost of the add-on printers to provide a paper trail is going to be as costly as just replacing the whole pile of DRE machines by simple optical scan machines.

Ongoing technical glitches have prompted elections officials in Florida's Miami-Dade County, famous for the hanging-chad controversy in the disputed 2000 presidential election, to consider scrapping a US$25 million investment in the county's electronic voting system in favor of optical scanning gear.

Miami-Dade now uses touch-screen iVotronic machines from Omaha-based Election Systems & Software Inc. (ES&S) that was installed in 2002 to remedy flaws in the paper-based system. After a special election last month – during which a glitch left hundreds of votes uncounted – and the subsequent resignation of the county elections supervisor, officials in Miami-Dade County are considering their electoral options.

"Quite frankly, if you talk to a number of people, they have lost confidence and are cynical about whether their votes count," said Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez. "That has to be changed. We need to do something where we can restore the confidence of the people in the electoral process – and that boils down to the equipment. The equipment is problematic."

He declined to place the blame in any specific area, but he did emphasize that "people want some sort of backup, a hard copy on paper."

Coding errors by county personnel caused the iVotronic system to undercount votes in five local elections, with a boiling point reached in a countywide March 8 special election. Officials said the miscount didn't influence the end result, but the elections supervisor, Constance Kaplan, resigned amid the controversy.

In a memorandum issued April 4, and with backing from Alvarez, County Manager George Burgess instructed newly appointed Supervisor of Elections Lester Sola to undertake a comprehensive review of the voting processes, including the coding and staff training processes. He also urged Sola to "assess the desirability and feasibility of replacing the County's touch-screen electronic voting system with an optical scan system."

In adjacent Broward County, which also relies on iVotronic machines, optical scanning would have been preferable from the start, said Mayor Kristin Jacobs. But optical scanners are no longer an option, because the state has mandated a tight deadline for a switch to automated voting systems – leaving county officials scrambling to meet the timetable. The state also limited the pool of vendors and technologies allowed.

Currently, Jacobs is pushing the state to allow printers to be used with the machines, a move that she said still requires state approval.

According to Sola, the problems in Miami-Dade resulted from human errors. The "equipment is working as required," he said.

Nevertheless, using the optical technology could cut costs and would automatically create a hard copy of votes. Before the installation of the 7,200 iVotronic machines, the punch-card-based system cost $1 million to $2 million per election. After installing the iVotronic equipment, that figure rose to $6.6 million in the November 2004 election. Part of that cost was the result of having to transport the machines back and forth securely to the voting precincts, requiring extra seasonal help and trucks.

While earlier estimates put the cost of going to optical scanning at somewhere between $3 million and $10 million, Sola said that would probably be cheaper than buying 7,200 printers at about $1,300 apiece for the iVotronic systems.

As for why the Miami-Dade didn't turn to optical scanning initially, Sola said officials viewed it as just a newer variation of the faulty punch-card technology. "We've learned a lot," he said. "We're not saying we're doing this right now. It's healthy to look at options."

For its part, ES&S emphasized that responsibility for the coding error lies with the county itself. "ES&S values our relationship with Miami-Dade County and (is) very proud of the work we have done together over the years to greatly enhance the county's voting process," the company said in an e-mail statement. "As a vendor with a broad array of integrated voting solutions, we are well-positioned to meet any needs Miami-Dade County may have in the near- or long-term."

A report will be delivered to the county manager on May 27.

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