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Touch-screen voting machines in Miami-Dade concern Penelas

By David Cázares
Miami Bureau Chief  for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted August 5 2004

Less than three years after Miami-Dade County spent $24.5 million on 7,200 touch-screen voting machines, Mayor Alex Penelas wants to know whether elections officials should scrap them.

Concerned that voters have lost confidence in the county's system of electronic machines after elections officials lost data from the disastrous 2002 primary, Penelas has asked County Manager George Burgess to determine whether the county should instead use paper ballots and optical scan equipment. His proposal drew a sharp rebuke from the head of the county's Election Reform Coalition, who said the county should not consider spending money on paper ballots when officials don't have time to test that system or train workers.

In a memo to Burgess on Wednesday, Penelas wrote that Supervisor of Elections Constance Kaplan has assured him that her department is taking steps to ensure the reliability of the county's elections. But the mayor said that he has doubts.

"Unfortunately, all of this continuing progress has and will continue to be haunted by our negative experiences in years past," Penelas said.

Miami-Dade is haunted by the disputed 2000 presidential contest, in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared President Bush the victor over former Vice President Al Gore by a tiny margin. But the county also is smarting from recent criticism that the county's iVotronic touch-screen machines did not record 1,544 votes in 31 predominantly black precincts during the gubernatorial contest among Democrats Bill McBride, Janet Reno and Daryl Jones.

Persistent allegations from the county's Election Reform Coalition that county officials cannot assure reliability of the voting machines sent black community activists to County Hall before noon Wednesday to demand that the county ensure all votes are counted.

Within hours, Penelas' staff had released his memo, which asked Burgess to report within 10 days on whether voting machines manufactured by Omaha-based Elections Systems & Software could be replaced with paper ballots and scanners. A spokeswoman for the mayor said he wants to know whether the paper ballots could be ready by the November general election.

Penelas asked Burgess whether the county can properly retrain its elections staff and educate voters on the change. He also asked for information on the reliability and availability of optical scan machines, how soon the county would have to buy them and the cost to the county.

Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, chairwoman of the election reform coalition, scoffed at the mayor's proposal, and said he "has come too late and done too little." Instead of spending money on paper ballots and scanners, she said, the county needs to make sure its voting machines work properly and that their data can be safeguarded.

"The worst reason to jump into a new technology is to do it precipitously in response to other bad technology," Rodriguez-Taseff said. "We need to fully understand those machines instead plunging into another purchase."

Rodriguez-Taseff said switching to a new voting system would be a monumental task as the county would have to retrain poll workers on the technology.

Burgess also appeared to express skepticism, however diplomatically. He said elections officials were preparing to use the electronic machines in the Aug. 31 primary and in November as the county has used them in more than 70 "smooth elections."

"Although we appreciate the mayor's concerns and will certainly respond to his requests to investigate our voting system options, our priority is to continue preparations in an effort to ensure a fair and transparent election," Burgess said in a prepared statement.

Kaplan, the elections supervisor, said she could not yet comment on the feasibility of changing to paper ballots and optical scanners, but said her department likely would analyze the pros and cons of doing so soon.

"We will do whatever we can to respond to the request," she said.

Kaplan also said she was concerned that some voters might stay home because of recent reports about the voting machines.

"We are prepared," she said. "There are no problems with the equipment. One of the biggest problems we're facing is people who are concerned or they've read all these various issues and maybe they think, `I'm not even going to go out and vote.' That's the worst thing that could happen to democracy."

Brad Brown, president of the Miami-Dade branch of the NAACP, said voters are concerned, but it would be a mistake for the county to rush into a new system without finding out what's wrong with its electronic machines.

Brown said the county must review the 2002 voting results to determine whether the machines were accurately stored and also perform a test of the machines' effectiveness during the primary.

"If in fact that shows that these things are completely off base and don't really work, then it may be necessary to do something else and the mayor's study would be useful," Brown said. "But a study in and of itself doesn't seem to make much sense."

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