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Glitch in voting machines gets fixed
Pasco officials say the problem won't affect vote tallies but admit the perception of corruption can make voters nervous, which one candidate for elections supervisor is playing
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET
Published July 18, 2004
DADE CITY - Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning envisions an assembly line of sorts.
A couple of employees will place some touch screen voting machines on the table. Other workers will download an updated program into those units. Once the five-minute download finishes, the machines will go back into storage, and new ones will move onto the table.
Workers will start the job this week, as they have more than 1,500 voting machines to update before the Aug. 31 primary rolls around. Browning estimates the job will take a couple of weeks.
The revised program addresses a rare glitch in the iVotronic machines, in which the serial number from a unit can appear garbled while votes are being downloaded from a small disc into another machine to be read. A low battery in the first is the culprit, and the updated program certified last week by the state Division of Elections should prevent it from affecting the serial number in the future.
Officials have emphasized the glitch does not affect vote tallies, but they recognize any perceived flaw can make voters nervous.
"It was a problem that needs to be taken care of, and it's a perception issue," Browning said. "The perception was ... if this issue is there and corrupting (the serial number), what else is it corrupting?"
Even though Browning said he could demonstrate that none of the vote tallies was affected, some voters would remain unconvinced as long as the glitch remained.
"The perception was the possibility (for a problem) exists," he said. "So, let's deal with the perception - and we have."
But the answer is little comfort to critics such as Browning's political opponent.
Patrick Bergy, a computer network administrator for a Tampa cardiac clinic, is running for Browning's job as an independent candidate. Bergy said the updated program has been tested "in a laboratory environment." But new problems could crop up when the program meets its first "real world" test, he said.
"The people who are telling us not to worry and "It's fine' and "There are no problems' are the same people who told us there were no problems before," Bergy said.
Concerns over the iVotronics linger in Pasco County, in no small part because they are a cornerstone of Bergy's campaign. Bergy confronted Browning about the system at a July 12 town hall meeting in New Port Richey, but as Bergy's questions turned into speeches, the lawmakers hosting the event told him he was out of order.
"I need for you to sit down and mellow out," state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, told Bergy.
Some of Bergy's concerns grow out of the so-called Ohio report, an audit of several touch screen voting systems commissioned by the Ohio secretary of state. In that study, reviewers found one "high risk" issue in the same iVotronic system used in Pasco County.
The problem was in the computer software used at election headquarters to tabulate the votes from each precinct. The software has an "add to/replace" function that could allow votes from a particular machine to be added to the tally multiple times.
A spokeswoman from Election Systems & Software, the iVotronic manufacturer, said there are no reported cases of that happening. And Browning said the opportunities for such a problem are rare: The function would be used only when votes need to be extracted from a machine that broke midway through election day.
"Theoretically, if they wanted to, (elections workers) could hit "add to' and "add to' and "add to,"' Browning said. "But obviously someone will say, "Those numbers aren't right. Did you see the number of registered voters (at the precinct)?"'
As part of elections protocol, he said, the number of ballots tabulated by the machines are checked against the number of voters who signed in at the precinct.
ES&S has revised the computer software to address the concern. Under the newer version, when workers press "add to," a warning will appear if the votes from that machine have already been added.
The updated software also will provide for longer passwords and encryption of the precinct vote tallies transmitted to election headquarters, both security recommendations from the Ohio report. But this revised software cannot be tested or certified in time for the 2004 elections; 2006 is more likely, Browning said.
Browning said there are numerous checks in the system to ensure vote tallies add up. But without a paper trail of each ballot, Bergy questions the system's reliability.
Bergy said Pasco County should demand ES&S replace the touch screen machines with an optical scan system, in which voters fill in bubbles on a paper ballot.
But Browning said the iVotronic system is safe, accurate and secure. The rare glitch that can affect the units' serial numbers will be fixed before the election, and his workers are trained to check and cross check votes to make sure everything adds up.
"The fact is, they've identified the (serial number) problem, they have revised the software, they have tested it rigorously, the state has certified it. Let's move on," Browning said. "In this business, if I keep dwelling on all of the things we have already dealt with, I will never get to those things I've got to get done, i.e. an August primary."
- Bridget Hall Grumet covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is email@example.com