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Voting transition draws fire
Hillsborough slow to replace touch screens.
By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 15, 2007
[Joseph Garnett, Jr. | Times (2006)]
Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson said his office is right on his schedule, which should land him a contract by late February and new machines shortly thereafter. In the meantime, he said, he's concentrating on getting the Jan. 29 presidential preference primary right with the equipment he has.
TAMPA - Hillsborough County is lagging behind the rest of Florida in switching to a new voting system, alarming the state's top elections official.
Most of the 15 counties making the required switch from touch screens to paper ballots next year already have new vote-counting machines on hand. Pinellas, another straggler, signed a deal two weeks ago.
But Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson, who has come under scrutiny in the past for election missteps, has yet to seek bids for the state's fourth-largest county.
"It would cause me to lie awake in bed at night with my eyes wide open," said Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who wants to make sure there is no repeat of the "Flori-duh" reputation earned in the wake of the 2000 election.
Johnson said that if Browning is concerned, he hasn't said so to him and that he is "shocked" and "astounded" that Browning is doing so publicly.
Johnson said his office is right on his schedule, which should land him a contract by late February and new machines shortly thereafter. In the meantime, he said, he's concentrating on getting the Jan. 29 presidential preference primary right with the equipment he has.
He said he will easily meet a state-imposed July 1 deadline for counties with touch screen machines to switch to an optical scan system.
"The secretary has a lot of things to worry about, and Hillsborough County is not one of the things he needs to be lying awake at night over," Johnson said. "Hillsborough County is in good shape."
Johnson said he has held extensive sessions with each vendor that might sell Hillsborough new machines. He and his staff have researched options to make sure they make the right choice, he said.
"We will continue in a deliberative process to get the best system for the best value for the citizens of Hillsborough County," Johnson said.
Sterling Ivey, spokesman for the Department of State, noted that Browning doesn't supervise the independently elected Johnson. Ivey said Browning only recently learned that Johnson is seeking bids and not taking the speedier route of sticking with his current supplier. He hopes to meet with Johnson next month.
Johnson is a former state representative who was appointed elections supervisor in 2003 and elected in 2004.
His tenure has been marked by turnover among his top staff, including one whom he paid nearly $25,000 not to sue or speak about what the staffer had seen in the office. In 2004, Johnson's staff failed to count 245 votes cast in a precinct. In 2007, more than 2,500 voters in two precincts received no written notification of a polling place change, leading to confusion. And backers of a county mayor ballot measure said their effort suffered after Johnson's staff lost petition signatures and rejected others that were valid.
Gov. Charlie Crist signed a law in May requiring counties to ditch the touch screen voting machines many purchased a few years ago. The machines, bought by some counties in the aftermath of the 2000 punch-card recounts, have been maligned because they don't produce a paper trail that can be checked afterward if questions arise.
Some election supervisors lobbied against making such a speedy switch, particularly in a high-turnout presidential election year. But Crist was unmoved. The machines must be used for the Aug. 26 primary.
Several counties did move quickly to secure new equipment for the fall elections.
Miami-Dade, the state's largest county, already has its new scanners on hand, though not its ballot boxes. The county stuck with the same provider as its touch screen system, partly in recognition of the limited time for learning new technology, said Christina White, executive assistant to Elections Supervisor Lester Sola.
Broward County has had its optical scanners since October, though it also is awaiting ballot boxes. Mary Cooney, public services director for the Broward office, said employees have already performed so-called acceptance tests to ensure the machines work properly.
Some employees are working with the machines to become familiar with them.
"You never have enough time," Cooney said.
That's Browning's refrain, too.
As the Pasco County elections supervisor, he oversaw voting machine conversions in 1977 and in 2001. In the latter, he said, he had touch screen machines on hand for 12 to 14 months before voters had to use them and still didn't feel he had enough time.
Elections employees have to test the machines to figure out what can go wrong, then figure out the solution. They have to train volunteer poll workers and be prepared for voters who in this case will be getting their third new voting method in three presidential elections.
"I'm telling them: You don't have any idea how difficult this is going to be," Browning said.
But Kathy Harris, Johnson's general counsel and chief of staff, said she is confident in Hillsborough County's preparation. She suggested Browning's anxiety is likely more a reflection of his recent transition.
"He's probably overwhelmed and a little frightened," Harris said. "He's coming from a county of, what, 300,000 voters and now he's in charge of the whole state."
Three are certified
To date, three companies are certified to provide optical scan voting machines in Florida: Election Systems and Software Inc., Premier Election Solutions Inc. and Sequoia Voting Systems Inc.
Each has flaws, from legal claims in other states to limited offerings for disabled voters.
Johnson's office says part of its decision to wait is the hope that a fourth potential vendor, Canada-based Dominion Voting Systems, will be certified. That competition could drive down costs from the other bidders.
But Dominion won't have its system tested until after Johnson is scheduled to make a selection, and it flunked an earlier trial with the state, Browning said.
Johnson said last week that Browning had not told him Dominion would be ineligible.
Johnson also has concerns that his current touch screen supplier, Sequoia, doesn't have a system for the visually impaired that is compatible with its optical scan machines. The disabled would have to continue to use touch screens in 2008, even though the state has deemed the equipment unfit for others.
That's another reason Johnson hasn't followed some counties and kept his current vendor, but instead will seek an open bid.
"Our taxpayers deserve the due process we're giving," Johnson said.
Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or 813 226-3387.