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Voting system change in Dade likely

The Miami-Dade elections supervisor recommended switching from electronic voting machines to optical scanners, citing poor voter confidence and high costs.


Miami-Dade is poised to be the first place in the nation to ditch the iVotronics paperless voting machines for paper-based balloting after the county's top election supervisor on Friday issued a memo ''strongly recommending'' the change.

''I don't know of any other jurisdiction that has been using iVotronics that has moved to a paper-based system,'' said Ken Fields, a spokesman for Election Systems & Software, the company that makes the machines. ``In fact, to the contrary, jurisdictions around the country have increasingly seen the value of the iVotronic technology.''

County Manager George Burgess forwarded election chief Lester Sola's report to county commissioners but cautioned that he has to give the question of ditching the iVotronics a complete review. Still, if commissioners vote in favor of the change, it could be a public relations black eye for ES&S, which sold the machines to Miami-Dade in 2002 for $24.5 million.

Broward County also uses ES&S machines.

Dade is one of ES&S' biggest clients. The company has more than 40,000 units in 20 states.

But with declining voter confidence and election day labor costs that have more than quadrupled, Sola said optical scanners could save big money.

If the county scraps the iVotronics, getting the new machines would take more than a year. County officials have been careful not to imply that the machines are faulty. The touch-screens are state certified and will continue to be used in upcoming elections while the issue is debated.

County leaders would have to choose one of seven optical scanners offered by three different vendors, including ES&S a process that could take seven months. The county would need 1,600 optical scanners, which cost as much as $6,000 each and take up to nine months to arrive.

Sola said they would have to spend $9.4 million to $12.3 million to equip the county's 749 precincts with the new machines. But he expects they could recoup the purchase price in a few election cycles through savings in operating costs and that the transition would be relatively smooth because the county already uses a handful of optical scanners to count absentee ballots.

''In fact, based on the initial analysis, the county could save more than $13.21 million over five years,'' Sola wrote.

The ATM style touch-screens were heralded as the best way to deliver Miami-Dade from under the clouds of the notorious 2000 presidential recount.

''That decision was based on the best information we had at the time. We were coming off the chads,'' said County Commissioner Katy Sorenson.

News of Sola's memo prompted U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, a longtime touch-screen critic, to urge Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood to study the accuracy of the voting machines in all touch-screen counties.

The move to ditch the iVotronics accelerated in April when elections chief Constance Kaplan resigned after her department found that human error led to hundreds of votes being tossed out in recent elections.

Days later, Burgess asked Sola to assess whether optical scanners, which count votes marked on ''bubble sheets,'' would deliver more accurate results. Burgess also wanted information on how much a switch would cost and how much it might save in the long run.

After the 2000 election debacle, county officials went with what they considered the most sophisticated technology around touch-screen voting machines. Miami-Dade bought 7,200 iVotronics, a paperless machine that stores votes on hard drives and discs.

In all, 16 of Florida's 67 counties chose touch-screen machines, including Broward. Other counties with large urban centers, except Orlando's Orange County, followed Miami-Dade's lead, choosing ES&S.

But in the machines' first major test, the September 2002 primary, Election Day was a disaster in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Complications with the machines prevented polls from opening on time, leading to the intervention of the governor.

The machines had relatively few glitches in later votes. But most recently, a coding error led to hundreds of ballots being thrown out in the March special referendum on slot machines. The same mistake was found in five other municipal elections, but Kaplan said the number of missing votes would not have affected outcomes.

In addition, the cost of the actual elections has escalated. There is about one election countywide each year and 30 or so municipal races. Sola's memo said that previous punch-card countywide elections cost about $1.5 million a price tag that has mushroomed to as much as $8 million with the iVotronics.

The county must replace the back-up batteries on the machines for about $1 million and the batteries on the cartridges used to program the machines for another $61,504. And, with an increase in registered voters, Sola said he expected the county would need to buy 1,000 more machines before 2008 for another $4 million.

In Broward, there is no effort to replace the iVotronics the county purchased for $17.2 million in late 2001.

Sola's memo already has the support of some commissioners.

''It doesn't really make any sense to put more money into these machines that nobody trusts,'' Sorenson said.

Either way, the county will continue to pay for its decision to buy iVotronics at least for the next seven years. It owes ES&S $20.5 million.

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