Touch screen malfunction resurrects voting concerns

A Miami-Dade machine reported an errant vote total in the 2004 general election. Some changes have occurred.

Published June 14, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - A malfunction with a single Miami-Dade touch screen voting machine last year is quietly prompting renewed scrutiny of Florida's infamous election process.

Disclosed less than a month ago after a citizen watchdog took a look, the glitch during the 2004 general election resulted in Miami-Dade reporting 171 more votes at a precinct than there were voters who showed up.

State lawmakers approved a little-noticed plan last month that requires counties to double-check official vote totals against the number of voters who cast ballots. Gov. Jeb Bush is expected to sign the bill.

Meanwhile, Miami-Dade's new elections supervisor has recommended replacing touch screen machines with older optical scan technology, in which voters mark a paper ballot that is read by a machine.

Touch screen machines, which are similar to automated teller machines, were heralded in the wake of the 2000 recount debacle as the cost-effective answer for big counties, particularly those that must provide multilingual ballots.

Miami-Dade bought the machines from Election Systems & Software, one of a small group of state-certified vendors. Pasco County also uses ES&S machines, while Hillsborough and Pinellas use touch screen machines made by Sequoia Voting Systems.

Miami-Dade Elections Supervisor Lester Sola, in a memo to County Manager George Burgess, said optical scan technology would increase voter confidence and reduce long-term elections costs. The November 2004 election cost Miami-Dade $6.6-million, twice what county officials anticipated.

"Voters ... remain uneasy about the lack of a paper record that is independent of the equipment on which the votes are cast," Sola wrote after two months on the job.

Sola said the county's $24.5-million original cost was just part of the long-term cost to maintain and expand the system.

The County Commission is expected to take up the issue within a month.

State officials said Monday they are confident that ES&S has created a software fix, expected to be distributed in the next month, that will prevent such glitches in the future.

Until then, the county has undertaken new procedures to identify similar problems, said Miami-Dade elections spokesman Seth Kaplan. "Had we known where to look, had we looked, we could have seen what happened in Precinct 816," Kaplan said.

But such assurances don't satisfy members of Miami-Dade Election Reform Commission, which first publicized the problem.

In a hearing before state elections employees Monday over rules governing touch screen recounts, University of Miami law professor Martha Mahoney urged the state to spell out how poll workers should tally the number of voters casting ballots.

The group, whose members monitored 88 polling sites in Miami-Dade County during the 2004 primary and general elections, found that even though signature tallies are required, poll workers often conduct the count haphazardly.

In a report last month, the group said it found that some poll workers simply used the ballot number from the machine tallies to fill in the form, defeating the purpose of a separate number to judge the technology's accuracy.