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Paperless, touch-screen voting costs soar

TERE FIGUERAS NEGRETE   Knight Ridder Newspapers    May 29, 2005

MIAMI - Miami-Dade's controversial paperless voting machines cost taxpayers about $6.6 million to operate during November's presidential election - about twice what officials budgeted.

Meanwhile, Orange County, which has a voting population roughly half the size of Miami-Dade's, spent less than $2 million to run its comparatively low-tech optical scan machines - less than a third of Miami-Dade's cost.

With a newly appointed elections supervisor set to weigh in by the end of this week on whether Miami-Dade should jettison its highly touted, $24.5 million iVotronic touch-screen system, the expenses it generates for each election - which include programming, setting up and securing the machines and printing backup ballots - will be a major factor in the decision.

"The cost is something that we're looking at very closely," said Lester Sola. "That, and voter confidence."

But comparing Miami-Dade's costs with Orange County's "is not apples to apples," said Bill Cowles, Orange County's elections supervisor. For example, Cowles' department listed the major expenses for the November elections at $1.12 million - a number that did not include costs such as overtime for staffers. The single biggest expenditure listed: $526,700 for ballots.

"There are a lot of costs associated with optical scan, too," Cowles said, citing printing costs and ballot storage. Orange County, which includes Orlando, is the most populated county to use optical scan devices as its sole voting apparatus. Manatee County also uses optical scan devices.

Miami-Dade's expenses included $1.4 million in overtime costs alone. Other costs stemmed from a massive voter outreach effort before the election and from officials' deploying technical experts to the polls to make sure touch-screen machines operated properly.

Better, cheaper way?

Now, as part of its evaluation of whether to keep the iVotronics, the county will have to balance its costs against the optical scanners - and judge how each would play out in the challenge of running an election in a major urban area, Sola said.

A key selling point for the iVotronic machines in 2002 was the promise that they could cater to the needs of increasingly diverse, logistically complicated elections.

"There was the idea that this would help deal with these issues, when in reality, that may not have been the case," said Sola, who was not part of the elections department at the time.

Sola was tapped to oversee Miami-Dade elections after the unexpected resignation of Constance Kaplan, who left in March after revelations that a computer coding error dumped hundreds of votes in an election that month. The same coding error was detected in several other municipal elections during the past year.

Officials have said the mistake did not affect the elections' outcomes, but County Manager George Burgess directed Sola to look into replacing the iVotronics with the optical scan devices.

Since then, staffers have been crunching numbers.

Big ticket costs

Here are some of the big-ticket costs associated with the iVotronics:

? Back-up batteries for each of the 7,200 iVotronic machines - at $147 a pop - totaled more than $1 million. Election Systems & Software, the company that makes the iVotronics, recommends replacing the batteries every three to five years.

? Batteries for the 7,600 handheld devices that activate the machines cost $8 each - or $60,800 total.

? Sola estimates that the county would need another 1,000 iVotronics - at about $4,000 apiece - by the next presidential election in 2008. Outfitting the county with an optical scan system could run an estimated $8 million, according to a memo drafted by Kaplan last year.

There also is the issue of the technical support required for the iVotronics.

The original purchasing contract included more than 400 days' worth of project-manager support from ES&S - but those days were gone by the end of the first year, a period that included the disastrous September 2002 primary.

Now, the county negotiates the rate and number of days for ES&S support in advance of elections. That price has been as high as $1,100 a day, per person.

For the 2004 election cycle, the county commission approved a contract that anticipated $294,000 in technical support. ES&S spokeswoman Megan McCormick declined to speak on the specifics of the Miami-Dade contract, citing company policy, but said the county's use of support staff "was consistent with what we have in other counties."

'A lot more work'

In Broward, which also uses ES&S iVotronics, the county spent slightly more than $100,000 for the November election in support from the Omaha-based company, with rates up to $1,800 a day, said deputy elections supervisor Gisela Salas.

"It's not like running a punch-card election. It's a lot more work and resources," she said. "But we're pretty comfortable with what we're doing."

The need for technical support in counties that use the touch-screen method varies greatly. In Palm Beach County, which uses a system created by Sequoia, elections workers rely solely on telephone support from the California-based company.

The November elections in Palm Beach County, which has a voting population of more than 759,000 - and like Miami-Dade, uses ballots in three languages - cost about $1.5 million, said elections chief Arthur Anderson.

Anderson, along with elections supervisors around the state, met this month during a conference in Orlando, where talk naturally turned to Miami-Dade's controversy.

"It got very emotional," Anderson said.

One defender of the touch-screen system is Cowles, who plans on phasing out Orange County's optical scanners and converting to an all-electronic system by 2012. He cites burgeoning voter rolls as a reason for switching.

If Miami-Dade decides to move in the opposite direction and purchase the optical scan machines, the switch would not be immediate. Unlike the state-mandated dumping of the punch-card method, the county would have time to adapt to the new machines. And the change would have to be approved by the county commission.

"There is a lot of work and a lot of cost associated in getting that end product to the voters," said Sola of the touch-screen system. "We have to decide what's going to be best in the long run."

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