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County tests new voting machines
By ROBERT W. DALTON in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal  26 August 2004

Barbara Blanchard was like a kid with a new toy Wednesday afternoon.

Blanchard, Spartanburg County's director of voter registration and elections, was showing off the 690 iVotronic touch-screen voting machines that voters will use in the Nov. 2 election.

The machines arrived Tuesday, and workers from Automated Business Systems and Services were testing them Wednesday.

The machines, produced by Election Systems and Software of Omaha, Neb., replace the 240 Shouptronic 1242 machines currently used by the county.

Sixteen South Carolina counties will use the iVotronic machines in November. The entire state will switch to the new system by 2006 at a cost of $36 million.

Spartanburg County's 690 machines cost about $2.5 million, with the federal government paying 95 percent of the cost, and the state picking up the remainder.

Blanchard said the new system would allow the visually impaired to vote without assistance for the first time in South Carolina. She said it also will be easier and more efficient for both voters and people manning the polls.

"We're not interested in being fast," Blanchard said. "We feel like we're fast already. We want to be accurate."

Ellen Theisen shares Blanchard's interest in accuracy. Theisen, spokeswoman for VotersUnite, a Port Ludlow, Wash.-based voter advocacy group, said that ES&S has a poor track record on that front.

Theisen sent a letter to the state Election Commission before it chose ES&S as its vendor.

"I'm really sorry to hear that they went ahead and did this when they knew all the reasons not to," Theisen said.

Recent problems with ES&S equipment, outlined on the VotersUnite Web site (www.votersunite.org), include:

(bullet) In Dade County, Fla., in April 2002, the software used to combine 45 absentee votes with the 309 electronic ballots changed the order of the candidates' names as it computed the results. The initial tally showed wins for two City Council candidates who actually lost the election. An ES&S technician had opened the ballot program on the memory cards to change a header. At the same time, he bumped the first candidate to the last position.

(bullet) In Wake County, N.C., in November 2002, machines lost 436 ballots in early voting. When the county director of elections contacted ES&S, company officials admitted that they knew the system was flawed.

(bullet) In Sarasota County, Fla., this past March, the county board of elections said the votes of 189 people were ever counted.

(bullet) Officials in three Indiana counties discovered in March that ES&S had installed an uncertified version of software. Representatives agreed to reinstall the certified version. Then it was determined that the certified version doesn't tabulate the votes correctly, so the county allowed the use of the uncertified version.

Meghan McCormick, a spokeswoman for ES&S, said all of the problems had been worked out and that the equipment had never been more reliable.

"It's been certified, tested and proven in elections worldwide," McCormick said. "We're confident that we can deliver a secure, accurate and reliable vote."

McCormick said the problem in Wake County was "an obscure technical issue" that had been fixed in other equipment before the election.

She said a misunderstanding of a recent change in the law and miscommunication on the part of company officials led to the problem in Indiana.

"This was absolutely not an intentional effort to circumvent the certification process," McCormick said in an e-mail. "At ES&S we take the certification process very seriously and we regret that this incident occurred."

Blanchard, who was on the panel that ed ES&S, said she was aware of the problem in Indiana but not of those in North Carolina and Florida. She said she's confident that all of the bugs have been worked out.

"I hope it's been installed in enough states that they should have everything ironed out in South Carolina," Blanchard said. "If there were a problem, we'd be able to catch it immediately, because we can do an audit trail using a flash card."

Still, Theisen offered one bit of advice: "Be wary and watchful," she said.

Robert W. Dalton can be reached at 562-7274 or bob.dalton@shj.com.

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