By David F. Carr Print this article Print

The first fiasco in the Florida vote was over paper. The second was electronic. How hard is it to get votes right?

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Sequoia had more experience with systems that directly record votes on a computerized device, rather than paper or a punch card. Since 1987, it has been supporting a product called AVC Advantage, an electronic equivalent of the old mechanical lever voting machines. The newer AVC Edge uses a touch screen.

Vendor choice was only one of many factors. Election officials had to contend with redistricting at the same time that they were implementing new technology. While Broward and Miami-Dade had the most severe problems, other counties reported a variety of snafus.

Miami-Dade's Phillips felt squeezed between getting the voting machines late and having to work with the vendor on software changes up until a week before the vote. "But nobody is willing to say, 'We'll just have the election on Thursday instead of Tuesday,'" he adds.

Because it wanted to offer the ballot in three languages—English, Spanish and Creole—Miami-Dade chose to employ a version of the iVotronic software that was still under development when the contract was signed this spring. This version used bitmaps for each menu screen, rather than text-based menus. The text-menu version of the software was limited to supporting two languages per machine. But this change complicated matters on election morning because, at start-up, each machine had to download the ballot from a removable data cartridge, and the bitmapped screens took longer—something like the difference between downloading a Web page with a lot of images, and one with only HTML text. By law, workers couldn't start setting up before 6 a.m., and the polls were supposed to open by 7 a.m. Each polling place got one master cartridge containing ballots, which had to be plugged into 10 to 12 voting machines, in sequence, for at least six minutes a machine. One hour wasn't enough.

When 7 a.m. came, some precinct clerks turned voters away rather than let them use whatever fraction of the machines were operational at that point—a procedural error that magnified the technological glitch. That's why Phillips blames most of the problems on human error rather than technology. "The clerks just froze. They didn't follow the instructions that they had," he says.

Victor Wiggert, a poll worker in the Miami-Dade precinct at Palmetto High School, said he wasn't fazed. He has worked with several generations of computers and knows his way around PCs. When eight of the 12 machines at his polling place failed to start, he tried to help. "But whatever I learned about computers was hopeless in this case, faced with a black box that didn't work."

ES&S says it traced most of the problems to improper installation of flash memory cards containing new software. Miami-Dade Supervisor David Leahy had directed ES&S to make a last-minute software change to correct confusing wording on the ballot.

This article was originally published on 2002-10-10
David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.
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