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Firm Accepts Blame For Hillsborough Election Glitch   (FL)

ELLEN GEDALIUS  Tampa Bay Online    28 August 2008

TAMPA - The fallout from the delays in posting primary election results continued Wednesday, with the voting machine manufacturer calling a news conference to accept responsibility for the glitch and to offer assurances that the $6 million system will work correctly in November's general election.

"Hillsborough did a phenomenal job of getting the results in to the state in a timely manner," said Kathy Rogers, vice president of government affairs for Premier Election Solutions. "In a nutshell, Premier does take responsibility."

On Tuesday, absentee ballot results were posted shortly after polls closed at 7 p.m., but officials then had problems posting early voting results. Delays lasted hours, even though only about 10 percent of the county's 650,000 voters cast ballots, one of the lowest turnouts in recent memory.

A visibly frustrated Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson gave only terse s to reporters and other election observers throughout the evening, repeatedly saying he was proud of his staff and that all the votes were safe, secure and counted. The problem was only with posting them to the public, he said.

Rogers elaborated Wednesday on the malfunction. The system, she said, is designed to prevent the accidental mixing of test results and actual election day results. The problem occurred because the identification numbers for the different databases - for absentee, early and precinct votes - did not match, so the numbers could not be merged into one report.

"We did not prepare this county in advance," Rogers said. "That is 100 percent solely an issue Premier will fix."

Despite Premier's public acceptance of blame, the election night glitches were another setback for Johnson, who is seeking re-election in November. Previous problems include slow election counts and his well-publicized late tax payments on some of his property.

His opponent in the Nov. 4 election, former County Commissioner Phyllis Busansky, issued a news release Wednesday saying, "Buddy clearly has lost people's confidence."

Tuesday was the first countywide launch of the new optical scan voting equipment. Lack of a paper trail and a dispute over a congressional race in Sarasota prompted the state Legislature last year to do away with touch-screen machines. The new law requires any county using touch screens to have switched to optical scanners by Oct. 1.

Johnson, in a competitive bidding process, ed Premier Election Solutions and awarded the Texas-based company a $6 million contract. The vendor was formerly called Diebold Election Systems and has been under scrutiny for perceived elections flaws elsewhere in the country.

Premier also made headlines this week when the company alerted 34 states - including Florida - of a software problem with some touch-screen systems and optical scanners. In one Ohio county, the touch-screen system malfunctioned in March when some voting data did not completely transfer from the memory cards to the server. No votes were lost.

Tuesday night's issue in Hillsborough County was unrelated, company officials said.

Thirty-three of Florida's 67 counties use Premier optical scanners, but only two counties - Hillsborough and Sarasota - are using the company's high-speed scanners for counting absentee ballots. Both Hillsborough and Sarasota experienced the same glitch Tuesday night.

Still, Johnson said: "Hillsborough County is not a guinea pig. These machines were tested by the state."

Other counties are using older equipment or a different vendor. The new equipment was certified by the state late last year.

The issue wasn't uncovered during pre-election testing, though Johnson said his office completed all testing required by state law.

It also wasn't discovered during the Plant City municipal election because a different absentee ballot counting system was used, said Robert Pickett, a sales representative for Premier.

The county elections office has paid $4 million on the $6 million contract. The rest will be paid as Premier provides general election support. Both Premier and the elections office had technicians on hand Tuesday night to sort through the problem.

Johnson repeatedly defended Premier on Wednesday, saying he is fully confident in the system and its support staff.

"We bought the best system," Johnson said. "Our version is the latest version; it is the best version."

Rogers said Premier will do more quality assurance testing between now and November.

"I don't think there's an elections official that will guarantee you a flawless election," she said. "Do I feel confident in Premier's equipment? Yes."

Bob Buckhorn, a former city councilman and a political analyst, said despite Premier taking responsibility for the problems, Johnson will have a tough time recovering.

"The only and ultimate test for the supervisor of elections is to show up once every 18 months and do the job right," Buckhorn said. "Whether it's human error or computer error, he's ultimately responsible."

Johnson said, "I don't think we failed in our job at all."

Rogers, too, defended the elections office.

"This is a very trained, very detail-oriented staff," she said. "My hat is off to them for the great job they've done."

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