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Power problem hit 40 percent of polls in San Diego's first use of e-voting


Associated Press

SAN DIEGO - A computer battery problem affected about 40 percent of polling stations in San Diego County, delaying and frustrating voters who lined up to cast electronic ballots in last week's primary election, according to a county report issued Wednesday.

In the largest rollout of an e-voting system by any local jurisdiction in the nation, San Diego County officials believe that the problems prevented an unknown number of people from casting votes. "There is no method to accurately measure how many voters were unable to vote," the report said.

On March 2, San Diego County was quickly overwhelmed with calls for help when poll workers turned on electronic devices that encode the magnetic-striped cards used to access touch-screen machines.

Poll workers were trained to expect their computer screens to show a page from the voting-system software. Instead, 40 percent of the 1,611 devices initially displayed a screen from the Windows operating system, according to the report by the county's Chief Administrative Office.

Though only four computer-clicks were needed to advance to the expected screen, many poll workers had no idea how to do so. The "widespread problem" with the encoding devices "was considered to be 'low probability,'" so poll workers were not given instructions on how to reach the proper screen, or alternative methods for encoding the access cards, according to the report.

"At a few locations, voters actually assisted poll workers in maneuvering through the start up process to reach the login screen," the report stated.

Diebold Election Systems of McKinney, Texas, is trying to determine the root of the problem. The county's report blamed an unexpected discharge from an internal battery that caused the computers to reset themselves and display the Windows screen.

"We just don't know yet why there would have been a low battery or power-source issue," Diebold spokesman David Bear said. "We are certainly looking at it."

The county said Diebold is expected to deliver its own report on the problem in about two weeks.

In Alameda County, which used the same voting machines made by Diebold, about 200 of the county's 1,096 polling stations saw a variety of problems with the encoding devices. Alameda County gave affected voters paper ballots or asked them to return later. Officials expect to conclude a report on the problems by the end of the month, said Elaine Ginnold, the assistant registrar of voters.

The Los Angeles Times found about 7,000 Orange County voters were given the wrong ballots by poll workers struggling to figure out their new e-voting system, which was made by a different company, Hart InterCivic.

In San Diego County, some 6,800 poll workers were recruited for the March 2 election. County spokeswoman Linda Miller said poll workers with computer skills will be needed for future elections.

The county Registrar of Voters had 11 troubleshooter hotlines set up, as well as 50 other phone lines available for poll workers to reach help. But the lines couldn't handle the rush of calls when polls attempted to open simultaneously at 7 a.m.

The report said 64 percent of polling stations managed to open on time. By 8 a.m., 88 percent were open, and by 9 a.m., all but 31 polling stations were open. The last station opened by 11:05 a.m.

San Diego County, like others across the state and country, was forced to change its election system because of the 2000 presidential fiasco in Florida, which led California and federal officials to ban the old punch-card ballots that were plagued by hanging chads and other problems.

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