Sarasota officials ignored warning about voting machines
An alert on glitches came ahead of recent election troubles but no one followed up.
By ANITA KUMAR
Published March 15, 2007
The maker of the voting machines used in last fall's disputed Sarasota area congressional race warned state and county officials that voters might have trouble recording their votes but the company's advice for fixing the problem went unheeded.
And as the controversy swirled into another national debate about another troubled Florida election, state and county officials never told anyone about the company warning that some of its touch-screen machines could produce a seconds-long delay before recording votes.
An Aug. 15 letter from Election Systems & Software told state and county officials about "slow response times" in recording votes on some of its machines. The company said an "update to the firmware" was required and also suggested counties post signs and train poll workers and voters about the need to press firmly for several seconds to ensure that the machine properly recorded the vote.
That never happened in Sarasota County.
And although state, county and company officials insist the accuracy of the vote counting was not in jeopardy, Pasco County got the same letter and chose not to use the 40 affected machines on Election Day in November.
"It wasn't any big deal," Sarasota Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent said Wednesday.
Letter comes to light
The Election Systems & Software letter made its way into public light this week on a North Carolina-based Web site devoted to election issues. Officials with the Florida Division of Elections and the Sarasota County Elections Supervisor could not explain why the memo had not been previously released, particularly since the losing candidate in the race had filed a lawsuit and a public records request to collect all relevant documents.
"Clearly we should have gotten this letter," said Sam Hirsh, attorney for Christine Jennings, the Democrat who lost. "I think they knew it was a smoking gun. This goes to the very core of the case."
Dent said her attorney advised her not to talk about the lack of disclosure of the letter and the state's attorneys were still reviewing the issue and would not comment.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the group that helps Democrats get elected to Congress, said Wednesday that he was disturbed "that election officials withheld the information about the voting machine problem" before and after the election.
Republican Vern Buchanan was sworn into the U.S. House in January, but Jennings refuses to concede, disputing her loss in the Florida courts and in Congress.
At issue: More than 18,000 people, or 13 percent of all voters, did not record a vote in the race, a rate higher than in other counties in the congressional district. On election day and afterward many voters complained that they had tried to vote in the race, but said the machine wouldn't take their ballot.
The state examined the machines and paid independent researchers to investigate before concluding that the computers were not faulty.
The letter from Election Systems & Software was sent to the state official responsible for certifying machines used in Florida and to the 11 Florida counties that use the company's touchscreen machines, including Pasco.
The company said it planned to solve the problem before the November election. But in a statement released Wednesday, company spokesman Ken Fields said there was not enough time to make the fix and get the machines recertified by the state before Election Day.
County and state officials said Wednesday they did not question the company when it failed to bring forward an upgrade before the election because, despite the response delay, the machines were working properly.
"We weren't experiencing a problem," Dent said.
"There was no need to go to the vendor to change the systems that close to the election," said Sterling Ivey, spokesman for the state Division of Elections. "The elections were not in jeopardy."
State and county officials said the company was responsible for bringing any necessary machine upgrades to the state to be tested and certified.
Auditors who conducted a state-funded investigation after the election determined the machines' slow response time did not contribute to the undervote, said Alec Yasinsac, an FSU computer science professor and project leader.
Yasinsac said the team looked into the slow response time after seeing a copy of the company's letter and reviewing logs of poll workers who complained about a delay in votes being recorded.
The company has repeatedly stressed that the delay, which will be fixed later this year, "did not affect any race or the accumulation of votes," Fields said.
But similar undervoting problems occurred in the attorney general's race on machines used in Lee, Charlotte and Sumter counties, though not enough to make a difference in the outcome of the election.
Jennings filed a lawsuit in November, asking for a new vote, as well as access to the disputed machines' hardware and software. A Leon County judge ruled against Jennings with regard to access to the machines, but she has appealed. A decision is expected any day.
Jennings also has taken the extreme measure of asking the U.S. House to intervene.
The case has been tied up in courts for months, and any action by the House - if there is any - will likely wait until the lawsuit is settled.
Calls to Buchanan's attorney were not returned Wednesday.
Times staff writer Rebecca Catalanello and staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202 463-0576.
A warning to election officials
Election Systems & Software, which designed the touch screen machines used in Sarasota, sent a letter to elections officials on Aug. 15 warning that voters might have difficulty registering their choices on some machines. An excerpt of the letter is shown below, as well as a sign provided by the company that could have been used to instruct voters. The sign was not used in Sarasota.