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Pinellas picks Sequoia touch screens


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 21, 2001

The debate over which voting machines to pick was so long, the path to a choice so tortuous, that Pinellas County commissioners made quips Tuesday night about everyone from Dorothy in Oz to the Lone Ranger.

The debate over which voting machines to pick was so long, the path to a choice so tortuous, that Pinellas County commissioners made quips Tuesday night about everyone from Dorothy in Oz to the Lone Ranger.

But in the end, they made a choice: If a deal is reached, county residents will start voting next year on electronic touch screen machines from Sequoia Voting Systems.

The California company was the top choice of a Pinellas citizens committee. But the company's $15.5-million proposal was jeopardized when it became known that Phil Foster, a key Sequoia executive, faces criminal charges in Louisiana.

That revelation sparked an investigation of all five companies vying for the contract. It was the latest in a series of controversies, from the machines' cost to conflict of interest allegations.

"We've been to Oz and back," said Commissioner John Morroni after the vote. "For the past year, it's been, "What's going on with the voting machines?' Now it's finally over."

The final vote was 5 to 1 in favor of Sequoia. Morroni voted against it because he prefers another company, and Commissioner Karen Seel abstained because her family owns stock in a company owned by Sequoia's parent company.

County staffers will begin negotiating with Sequoia next week, and commissioners will vote again on the final contract.

Sequoia's chief executive, Peter Cosgrove, drove across Florida Tuesday doing repair work on contract bids. Tuesday morning, he went to Indian River County, where commissioners decided to renew the county's contract, which they had canceled after Foster's indictment became public.

Then Cosgrove went on to Pinellas, where he sat silently in the back row. Company vice president Mike Frontera, who will replace Foster as project manager, stood, smiled and waved when he was introduced. But Cosgrove and his company won the vote without speaking to commissioners.

After the vote, Cosgrove said he still believes Foster is innocent, but that the charges against him were bringing unwanted attention to the counties Sequoia was pursuing.

"We regret that the decision (to support Foster) caused difficulties and embarrassment for the counties," he said.

Pinellas is the largest of three Florida counties whose business the California-based company has won. So far, Sequoia's chief rival, the Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software, has made deals with 10 Florida counties for touch screens and with seven more for optical scanners.

"The approval of a county of Pinellas' stature is highly important to our company," Cosgrove said. "Pinellas was one of our priority targets."

Sequoia is one of two companies trying to sell machines to Hillsborough County. Frontera would be the project manager there if Sequoia is picked.

In Pinellas, the decision means the end of 23 years of voting on punch cards, the chad-studded ballots that were disgraced in last year's presidential election recounts.

"What we're here to do is restore confidence in our voting process," said Commissioner Susan Latvala.

Latvala, a strong proponent of touch screens, said she felt Sequoia's machines are the easiest to use.

"It has to be simple for every single voter and that's where my confidence went to Sequoia," she said.

Commissioner Ken Welch said the simplicity of the touch screens, where voters touch a computer screen to choose candidates, sold him as well. Welch had advocated for optical scanners, but changed his mind after researching the accuracy, long-term cost and security of the systems. The deciding factor, he said, was reading reports in the St. Petersburg Times about voter errors, especially in Pinellas' majority-black precincts.

"We have a problem there," said Welch, who is African-American. "One way we can address it is to use the technology that's the easiest to use. . . . It makes it easy not only for the sophisticated voter but for the voter that has never voted in their life."

County Judge Patrick Caddell, chairman of the citizens committee that ranked Sequoia first of five companies, said he was pleased with the decision. Even if Foster's indictment had been public before the committee recommended Sequoia, Caddell said, he thinks committee members would still have ranked Sequoia first.

Deborah Clark, the elections supervisor who recused herself from the decision after it became public that her husband has worked for ES&S, said she still hopes to use the touch screen machines in a March city election. Clearwater is supposed to be the first city to use the machines, but if there's not enough time to train poll workers and elections officials, Clark said, the first city may be a smaller one.

"I'm glad we were able to move forward, because we have so little time to get ready for the election," she said. "This is when our work begins."

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