Big vote and 'silly little' glitches

More than 72 percent of registered voters continue a trend of strong turnout. Computer problems keep counters up all night.

Published November 4, 2004

Tuesday's election was marked by strong voter numbers and minor technological problems that caused tallying delays, headaches and a long night for county election officials.

County voter turnout was high in this election, with more than 72 percent of registered voters hitting the polls, according to the elections office.

That beats the 68.5 percent of voters in the 2000 presidential election. But, it was not as high as the 79 percent who showed up in the 1996 presidential election.

Hernando was among a handful of counties in Florida that reported voter technology problems, said Jenny Nash, spokeswoman for the state Division of Elections.

The county's main computer server couldn't read four computer memory cards containing at least 5,000 ballots cast by absentee and early voters, as well as those who voted in Precinct 45, Spring Hill United Church of Christ.

Each card contains totals tallied from one of the county's 75 optical scan machines.

"I don't know why," said Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams, who worked into early Wednesday morning to get unofficial results tallied. "But the silly little thing decided to malfunction."

However, the optical scan machines are equipped with a backup paper trail mechanism. Individual optical scan machines were able to read the faulty memory cards and produce totals on paper "tapes," which resemble cash register receipts.

The county canvassing board spent several hours late Tuesday poring over the tapes and using an adding machine to hand-calculate all the precinct totals - not just the absentee, early and Precinct 45 ballots.

"We wanted to double-check everything," Williams said.

Hernando County was not alone with its problems with memory chips. Volusia County, which uses the same voting system, also couldn't get its main server to read memory chips containing thousands of absentee ballots.

The voting system's manufacturer, Diebold Election Systems Inc. of McKinney, Texas, said problems with its equipment were few and isolated during the election.

The memory cards, which resemble small, square digital camera memory cards, can go wrong if they're improperly inserted into optical scan machines. Or they can just malfunction, Diebold spokesman David Bear said.

"Sometimes you have a memory card that just needs to be replaced," Bear said. "But it's not a real problem. That's why there are redundant features built into the system."

Unofficial election results from all 56 precincts were tallied and available a little after midnight.

On Wednesday morning, the elections office reran all the original absentee ballots, Precinct 45 ballots and early voting ballots cast in Brooksville through optical scan machines.

Another, unrelated, election night problem broke out at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Spring Hill, just after polls closed Tuesday evening.

Shortly after 7 p.m. sheriff's deputies were called to the church, because several irate voters were attempting to storm a closed polling place at the church, demanding the right to vote, chief deputy Michael Hensley said.

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The voting system's manufacturer, Diebold Election Systems Inc. of McKinney, Texas, said problems with its equipment were few and isolated during the election.

Williams said the people left outside showed up to vote after 7 p.m.

When the deadline struck at 7 p.m., a precinct deputy stood behind the last person in line, and all of the people in front of the deputy were allowed to vote, she said.

However, 10 people arrived after the 7 p.m, deadline, and then became agitated when they learned they would not be allowed to cast ballots.

Elections officials said latecomers scattered before sheriff's deputies arrived about 7:30 p.m.

Williams said the same procedure was used at several other precincts. No other disturbances were reported, she said.

Staff writer Will Van Sant contributed to this report. Jennifer Liberto can be reached at 352 848-1434 or liberto@sptimes.com