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Vote software is under fire (FL)
Herald Tribune. November 6, 2008. By Christopher O'Donnell & Todd Ruger

MANATEE COUNTY - Florida's touch-screen voting systems might be history, but elections officials still depend on computer software to tally the paper ballots.

And once again, problems with that software on the night of the big show delayed election results Tuesday and left candidates in close elections in Sarasota and Manatee counties going to bed without knowing how they fared.

Even an d version of that software used in Hillsborough County had problems, and Leon County quit using the system after just one day of early voting.

Now the company that makes the software Premier Election Solutions of Texas is under fire from unhappy election officials in Florida.

Florida counties, however, have few options when it comes to finding a better system. Premier is one of only three voting system manufacturers that have been certified for use in Florida.

Sarasota elections supervisor Kathy Dent said she would talk to Premier about the problems, including a glitch that prevented all absentee votes from being added to the countywide totals on the night of the primary in August.

Dent declined to use some of the equipment in the presidential election because Premier could not fix the software problem in time.

"We spent a lot of money on this," said Dent, who went home before all the system problems were solved Tuesday night. "I want them to make it right."

Sarasota spent $2.9 million on the system in 2007; Manatee spent about $800,000 on the system in 1997. Both pay regular service fees as well.

A simple change in one Manatee County race, where a candidate ped out last week, caused the Premier software program known as GEMS to lock up. That prevented the counting of 46,000 ballots on Tuesday night, Supervisor of Elections Bob Sweat said.

In Sarasota County, results were delayed until 1:30 a.m. Wednesday because the Premier software would not accept results from one memory card that held about 6,900 absentee ballots.

Frozen software in Hillsborough County left tens of thousands of ballots uncounted and the supervisor of elections threatened to end the Premier contract.

Officials from Premier know they are taking hits in Florida, and they say each individual problem will be addressed.

"You're constantly enhancing your products," spokesman Chris Riggall said.

Still, Premier's reaction to the problems has not impressed its customers.

Sweat was so frustrated over Premier's nonchalant reaction to his dilemma Tuesday night that he threatened to draw national media attention to the trouble if he did not get more immediate help.

And at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday in Hillsborough County, elections supervisor Buddy Johnson placed the bulk of blame for problems there on Premier and hinted that he would seek to terminate the county's contract with the company.

He accused Premier officials of being less than honest with his office, but did not elaborate.

"I will not allow my team to take this on the chin," he said. "I think you can anticipate" Premier "pointing their finger at this office," he said.

Premier said in a statement that the transmission of results to the main software in Hillsborough County were prematurely terminated because of programming.

In Leon County, home to Tallahassee, the election supervisor said he stopped using machines with the latest version of the Premier software after one day of early voting because it would not accept some ballots.

The problem in Manatee was caused by the late withdrawal of a candidate for fire commissioner in Parrish. The candidate withdrew from the race last week, before early voting was originally due to end.

That was too late for election officials to take his name off the ballot as votes had already been cast.

But Florida law states that votes should not be counted for withdrawn or disqualified candidates.

So election officials d the central database not to report on the race, which as it had only one other candidate was no longer contested.

Counting began smoothly, but when officials tried to load in votes from Parrish precincts, the system locked up.

Even with on-site help from a Premier technician, officials could not fix the problem.

Officials abandoned the count at 11:30 p.m. until more technicians from Premier could arrive on site. Premier told Sweat he could get an upgrade that would not allow the problem to happen again.

"I'm going to keep the system; it's a good system," Sweat said.

Manatee officials regrouped Wednesday and fixed the glitch; results were released at noon and no election outcomes changed.

One of the candidates left waiting for results was Shirley Bryant, who ran for mayor in Palmetto. Bryant went to bed Tuesday knowing she was leading but did not know she won until midday Wednesday.

"It didn't look like there was any way to get a handle on what those number were," she said. "I was just trying to be very cautious."

Sarasota County had all of its results at about 11 p.m., except for the memory card that could not be read.

After trying different work-arounds, the Canvassing Board, which oversees the election, decided to start adding the 6,900 ballots to the overall results by hand.

By the time they finished at 1:30 a.m., one of the work-arounds finally worked. The problem was that the software was not recognizing the memory card.

"We know what the problem was, but we don't know what caused it," Sarasota Assistant Supervisor of Elections Scott Farrington said.

"It's going to take the manufacturer some research." "I don't think it's anything we could have done."


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