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New voting machines approved

Pinellas will spend $6-million on the optical scan machines, despite some legal woes facing the maker.

By WILL VAN SANT, Times Staff Writer
Published November 28, 2007


CLEARWATER - Pinellas County commissioners voted Tuesday to buy optical scan voting equipment from Election Systems & Software despite the company's ongoing legal troubles.

Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to purchase ES&S voting technology for $6-million. The move will make Pinellas compliant with a state law requiring localities to replace touch screen technology with optical scan machines in all Florida elections after July 2008.

County leaders had discussed postponing the vote because the state of California and San Francisco filed lawsuits last week against ES&S, the country's largest provider of electronic voting equipment.

The lawsuits alleged the company sold voting machines in 2006 to local California governments that state regulators had not approved. The company denies any wrongdoing.

Though it approved the deal, the commission said it wants written confirmation from Florida's Department of State that the ES&S equipment it's buying has been approved for use here.

That shouldn't be a problem: The state certified the ES&S models Pinellas is purchasing on Aug. 29.

Before deciding to ink the deal, Pinellas leaders spoke to Florida election regulators and California officials. They were assured the lawsuits focus primarily on whether the company violated California law by selling machines that hadn't been approved. The capability of Pinellas' ES&S equipment isn't in doubt, officials said.

"It does not involve a reliability issue," acting county attorney Jim Bennett told the commission. "It only involves certification."

San Francisco's lawsuit does, in part, raise issues about the reliability of older ES&S equipment. But the machines the city says caused problems are not those being purchased by Pinellas.

The commission voted after hearing from Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, who like Bennett stressed the company's woes in California involved an alleged failure to get their machines certified.

Clark told the commission that 32 Florida counties have contracts with ES&S, and the company has a solid reputation among her peers.

"Every supervisor of elections in Florida that I speak to speaks very highly of ES&S," Clark said.

The new optical scan equipment requires voters to use a pen or pencil to mark their selections on a paper ballot.

The ballots are then "read" by a scanner resembling a fax machine. The ballots are collected in the machine's belly, producing a paper record of each vote cast.

Voters will not get a receipt confirming their choices after their ballots are scanned.

County election officials will choose one municipality in which to roll out the new machines during local elections March 11. The equipment debuts countywide Aug. 26, when the nonpresidential primary is held.