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Cook voting glitches blamed on small computers
Chicago Tribune  By John McCormick and David Kidwell  November 8, 2006

Half of Chicago and suburban Cook County precincts failed to transmit vote results after the polls closed, officials said Wednesday, despite improved training and extra pay for technology specialists in polling places.

The biggest stumbling block, as in the March primary, was a small computer used to transmit results, a key component in the new, $50 million-plus electronic balloting system.

Although poll workers in both the city and county struggled to operate the identical machines, the city quickly overcame the problems. The county could not.

The difference: The county's problems snowballed because of a failed backup system, which resulted in overnight delays in close contests.

A day after the voting endedóbefore the last ballot was even countedócounty election officials were scrambling to assign blame for a sluggish vote count that embarrassed them for the second election in a row. Much of the county's anger was directed at California-based Sequoia Voting Systems.

"I clearly expected faster results," Cook County Clerk David Orr said. "I'm disappointed, and we need to get to the bottom of it.

"If it leads to errors in my office, if it leads to errors with Sequoia, if it leads to errors elsewhere, it will be tracked down."

Although they experienced plenty of their own voting glitches, Chicago election officials were able to more than double the precincts accounted for by 11 p.m. Tuesday compared with their performance in March.

The county, meanwhile, reported results at an even slower rate Tuesday than in the primary. By 10 a.m. Wednesday, it crossed the 90 percent threshold of precincts reporting but remained stuck near that level late in the day.

Experts to study delays

Orr said he plans to appoint an independent panel of experts to study the delays. "These questions must be answered before the next election," he said.

Orr's criticisms focused on technology, not poll workers.

"I do believe the election's supervisors performed well," he said. "I don't think that's the heart of this at all."

For instance, Orr said election workers had nothing to do with the failure of memory cartridges in 45 precincts that forced his staff to recount thousands of votes.

Orr insisted that the slow returns did not affect the election's outcome. "We're not worried about the integrity of the ballots," he said.

Interviews Wednesday, meanwhile, suggested the biggest difference in the speed of reporting results was due to the city having built a more robust backup system to process data packs driven to processing centers after attempted transmissions failed.

The city had high-speed data connections at its centers, while the county had a network that depended on wireless signals, which weren't capable of moving data as quickly.

County officials maintained they had never been told not to use wireless access. But Sequoia provided the Tribune with a copy of an e-mail it said it sent on July 13 stressing the importance of using a faster, wired approach.

"Placing the work stations at the remote sites on the ... wide area network is the best solution," the e-mail to Orr's information technology manager said.

The city had also uploaded early vote totals onto its servers around 4 p.m., well before the polls closed at 7 p.m. That prevented the type of traffic jam that happened on the county's computers.

County officials said they were sensitive to criticism from election watchdogs about counting any votes before polls closed. So they chose to wait until 7 p.m. to begin that process.

David Allen, a Sequoia project manager, said the county's computer logjam happened shortly after the polls closed.

An enormous data backlog

The data represented only about 32,000 votes from 160 touch-screen machines, but it also included thousands of ballot configurations in various languages.

"While it's only 32,000 votes, the file is enormous," Allen said. "So while the computer was still churning on all these early votes, the precincts started transmitting, and data started backing up."

Ed Smith, a Sequoia vice president, said he was surprised to hear the county is looking for independent experts to examine the system. He said it's premature for county officials to exonerate poll workers.

"Right now, it's irresponsible to say what caused this or didn't cause it," Smith said.

Orr said that if the problems cannot be resolved, there could be "more, very serious, consequences."

Clem Balanoff, the county's director of elections, said he and Orr have not discussed whether the county should withhold its portion of the $24 million still owed to Sequoia by the city and county. "Right now we just want answers," he said.

The front line of defense against equipment problems was supposed to be a specially trained group of poll workers. The county paid 1,600 equipment managers $500 each, rather than the standard $150 for an election judge.

But with half of precincts failing to transmit remotely, the extra training proved not to be enough to master the $525 Hybrid, Activator, Accumulator & Transmitter machine.

Central processing centers where poll workers could drive data cartridges for processing were to be the next line of defense. In this backup role, the receiving stations were designed to handle only about a quarter of all transmission traffic. When more than that hit them, they bogged down.

Shortly before midnight, county officials determined that the receiving stations were not working fast enough and instructed workers to drive data cartridges and ballots downtown.

County officials say they cannot yet quantify how many precincts did not even attempt to transmit results remotely. They said those driving the ballots and data cartridges downtown during the night were escorted by sheriff's deputies.

The county's historical practice of counting votes in the precincts adds to the complexity. But Dan White, executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections, said there is no state law requiring in-precinct tabulation. He said Chicago and Cook County are the only jurisdictions he knows of that do it that way.

In theory, it should speed tabulation. But that has not been the case since electronic voting was introduced in March in Chicago and Cook County.

White said that other counties with electronic voting typically have poll workers drive data cartridges to their courthouses, or have remote processing centers.

Tribune staff reporter Hal Dardick contributed to this report.

 



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