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Elections chief urges Miami-Dade to ditch touch-screen machines

The Associated Press     28 May 2005

Miami-Dade County's elections chief has strongly recommended that its ATM-style voting machines be ditched for optical scan ones that use paper ballots, another black mark for the devices that were billed as a way to avoid a repeat of the 2000 presidential election fiasco.

Elections supervisor Lester Sola said in a memo Friday that reached his conclusion based on declining voter confidence in the paperless touch-screen machines and election day labor costs that have quadrupled with them.

County Manager George Burgess forwarded Sola's report to county commissioners, who have to decide whether to get rid of the machines. But Burgess cautioned that he must give a careful review to Sola's recommendation to get rid of the machines that the county bought for $24.5 million three years ago.

Sola and County Commission chairman Joe Martinez did not return phone messages seeking comment Saturday.

The county would be the first place in the nation to ditch the iVotronics machines for paper-based balloting, said a spokesman for Election Systems & Software of Omaha, Neb., the company that makes the devices.

"In fact, to the contrary, jurisdictions around the country have increasingly seen the value of the iVotronic technology," Ken Fields said.

The machines were heralded as the best way to ensure Miami-Dade would never again bring the nation's election process to a halt. The county was one of several in Florida that were mired in legal fights over hanging and dimpled chads on punch-card ballots in the race that George W. Bush eventually won by 537 votes.

Fifteen of Florida's 67 counties later chose touch-screen machines. But in the machines' first major test, the September 2002 primary was a disaster in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Complications with the machines prevented polls from opening and closing on time, leading to the intervention of Gov. Jeb Bush. Results for the Democratic primary for governor were delayed for a week.

The machines had fewer glitches in later votes. But a coding error led to hundreds of ballots being thrown out in a March special referendum on slot machines. The same mistake was found in five other municipal elections, but officials have said the number of missing votes would not have affected outcomes. A watchdog coalition has complained of even more errors, including problems with the machines' hardware.

County officials have not said that the machines are faulty. They are state certified and will continue to be used in upcoming elections while the issue is debated.

Sola said the county would have to spend $9.4 million to $12.3 million to equip the county's 749 precincts with the optical scan machines. But he expected they could recoup that through savings in operating costs.

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

He also said the transition would be relatively smooth because the county already uses optical scanners to count absentee ballots.

Sola said that punch-card elections cost the county about $1.5 million - a price tag that has mushroomed to as much as $8 million with the iVotronics.

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. The county still owes ES&S $20.5 million for the original purchase.


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