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Voting runs into untimely glitch
Clocks on machines flip back 1 hour when touch-screens turn off

Denise-Marie Balona and Rebecca Mahoney | Sentinel Staff Writers
Posted November 2, 2006

A new glitch with a version of the already-controversial touch-screen voting machines has turned a simple computer function into a major headache for election officials in at least five Florida counties days before Tuesday's general election.

Election supervisors in Volusia, Polk, Putnam, Leon and Glades counties just found out the clocks in the Diebold Model D machines apparently are malfunctioning this week. That's a problem because the clocks serve a critical function, recording when polls open and close during early voting which continues this week and on Election Day.

Election employees in Polk County, which started using the machines countywide in September, discovered the problem Monday morning, when they checked to see if their clocks fell back an hour to coincide with the end of daylight-saving time.

Election supervisors said some clocks they have been able to check are turning back an hour every time the touch-screens are turned off and on, which is at least once a day during early voting.

Most voting officials downplayed the significance of the new glitch, while critics said it underscores the danger of relying on questionable technology without a voter-verifiable paper trail to ensure democracy.

Volusia Supervisor of Elections Ann McFall said she likes the machines but worries this problem will be followed by others. She and other election officials said they plan to deal with the issue by having poll workers keep detailed records, but that has been a problem in itself in Volusia, where an unusually high number of voters used touch-screens for the first time during the Sept. 5 primary.

The Volusia supervisor's office came under fire after poll workers mistakenly threw out important records made by touch-screens and voting machines that count paper ballots.

"Every time you give them [poll workers] another piece of paper," McFall said, "it's another form to fill out, and I'll tell you our weakest link in the department of elections is getting forms filled out correctly."

McFall said she will check whether the clock is wrong in the touch-screen used at the DeLand early voting site during a canvassing board meeting scheduled for Friday. She plans to look at the others this weekend.

It is unclear whether the issue has plagued other states. National election advocates said Wednesday that they weren't aware of similar problems.

Diebold Election Systems officials said they hadn't heard of any, although spokesman David Bear said it would make sense for the machines to be off by an hour if election supervisors turned back the clocks before the machines did it automatically last weekend.

Bear called the malfunction a human error and said it doesn't affect the integrity of the machines.

"This isn't a problem with the system," Bear said. "It's a problem with setting a clock."

This new concern comes not even two months after counties did the first statewide test of touch-screens during the Sept. 5 primary. A host of problems surfaced, including computer crashes and misleading vote tallies on election night, when many counties introduced a "blended" system of touch-screens and paper ballots.

Counties had to use the machines whether they wanted to or not. Federal rules now require them to provide disabled voters a way to cast ballots independently. In Florida, touch-screens are the only certified method.

The touch-screens caused another problem in Volusia this year, when its machines first arrived. They came with the wrong software, which McFall said likely was a result of the equipment's being hurried through the state's certification process.

Touch-screen foe Susan Pynchon called the certification process a "charade and a complete sham."

"It's incredible that these machines are fraught with problems and things continue to go wrong, and yet the state OK'd them," said Pynchon, executive director of the Florida Fair Elections Coalition, which has campaigned against touch-screens.

R. Doug Lewis, who leads The Election Center, a nonprofit agency in Houston that works with election directors nationwide, said the error shouldn't wreak havoc with local elections. Counties will simply have to be vigilant about record-keeping.

"It's irritating," he said, "but it should not be a material factor as long as you follow up and do an additional practice of logging by serial number and unit, so you know what happened to each unit."

Ion Sancho, who oversees elections in Leon County, including Tallahassee, said it's more than irritating. He called Diebold "corrupt" and said the glitch will cast doubts about voting accuracy.

"I've got one touch-screen per precinct the bare minimum I can get away with, and I'm not going to add any more," he said. "Paperless voting is the wrong way to go."

McFall said she had worried the time glitch would cause the machines to turn off at the wrong time and keep residents from casting votes. She said Diebold has assured her office it won't, but she has asked for it in writing.

"I just want to make sure that won't happen," she said. "I'm not worried. I just want to make sure."

Denise-Marie Balona can be reached at dbalona@orlandosentinel.com or 386-851-7916. Rebecca Mahoney can be reached at rmahoney@orlandosentinel.com or 386-851-7914.

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