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Software glitch slowed vote tally in Sarasota  (FL)

Todd Ruger    Sarasota Herald Tribune   28 August 2008

A software glitch in the county's new $3 million voting system slowed the vote tally and left elections officials adding votes with pencils and paper as they pushed to meet a state elections reporting deadline late Tuesday.

The problem did not affect how votes were counted, but kept two new $80,000 machines from being able to upload all 10,700 absentee votes into the elections computer.

Elections Supervisor Kathy Dent said she now does not feel comfortable using the two machines in the November presidential election, and plans to use other machines.

Dent, a Republican, called the problem a "major inconvenience" and said the voting system vendor, Premier Elections Systems Inc., admitted in a conference call that its system caused the error.

Elections watchers said it was another example of how Florida's elections officials in Tallahassee have not thoroughly vetted voting systems.

"I would put the problem squarely on the shoulders of the testing program," said W. "Skip" Parish, a computer expert who has worked as a Democratic computer expert in past elections.

"The supervisors of elections are administrators of the elections, but they don't have control over the equipment they use," Parish said. "If there's problems of this nature, you have to look back to Tallahassee."

Dent said the Division of Elections is understaffed for certifications and there was a rush to get paper ballot machines because the law changed.

"Maybe it wasn't as thorough as it should have been," Dent said of the state's certification process. Her staff found small issues with the Premier system after it was certified.

The problem occurred when computer code meant to be a safeguard against absentee ballots being counted twice was mistakenly blocking the first transmission, Dent said.

"I'm glad it happened now and we have a solution for it before the November election," Dent said.

The machines, used for the first time Tuesday, worked fine in testing and a mock election but failed during the actual election.

The problem also happened in Hillsborough County, state elections officials said. The counties are the only two with the combination of a certain version of Premier software and the certain optical scanners.

Dent and her crew used the same machines Wednesday and the problem was apparently gone.

They rescanned the ballots and had no problem transferring the data.

The problem Tuesday prevented Dent from adding 10,948 absentee ballots into the vote totals; she expects 50,000 absentee ballots in November.

But Dent says any new program has to go through lengthy testing in a state approval process.

Instead, Dent said Premier offered to send 10 ballot scanning machines to Sarasota County, the same ones used in precincts. They are slower but more sure of transmitting the votes.

"Now the fact we're going to have to manually feed the ballots, it's going to be much more labor intensive and take a lot longer," Dent said.

But those machines have a separate issue in transmitting data. A software glitch could cause votes to be ped when multiple memory cards are being uploaded to create a final tally for the county.

In a letter to Ohio officials last week, Premier said its own tests confirmed the problem was with the machines and sent out letters to cities and counties in 34 states that use the software, including Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties.

More than half of Florida's counties use machines with software that contains the glitch. Dent said that issue did not come up in Sarasota County during Tuesday's election.

Officials in Ohio discovered at least 1,000 votes were ped in nine counties in various elections. The errors were caught and corrected within hours.

Premier did not return calls for comment on the programming errors.

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