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Few problems reported in states with high-tech voting systems

Tuesday, November 5, 2002

Associated Press WriterNEW YORK (AP) -- Few problems emerged in early voting Tuesday with touchscreen and other high-tech voting machines that made their full-scale debut in more than 200 counties nationwide.

Anxious to avoid the kind of snags that created Florida's primary mess in September, election officials had spent countless hours training poll workers and educating voters on how the new digital tallying machines work.

The biggest general election debut for touchscreen machines was in Georgia, where some 19,000 were deployed across the state and voters offered good reviews.

One voter, Tracy Yandle of Atlanta, said it was "as easy as using an ATM."

"It's great. I've been voting for a lot more years than I care to say," Joe Penley of Barnesville raved. "It's almost too simple. My 4-year-old granddaughter could do it. It's hard to make errors if you just follow instructions."

Technical problems characterized as minor were reported in three of Georgia's 159 counties, with two machines failing in one.

Analysts had expected some trouble Tuesday given experiences during primaries and early voting.

But there were only a few problems in the Florida counties of Miami-Dade and Broward where difficulties with high-tech machines had thrown the Sept. 10 primary into confusion and delayed results for a week in the Democratic gubernatorial contest.

Former Attorney General Janet Reno not only lost the Democratic primary for governor on that day. She was also turned away from her suburban Miami polling station when machines weren't ready.

This time was different.

"It was smooth," said Reno. "They were prepared for me this time."

It wasn't machines alone but inadequate training for poll workers and poor planning that were blamed for the Sept. 10 troubles in Florida.

So, Miami-Dade and Broward election officials stepped up poll worker training and added hundreds of workers to troubleshoot the new machines, which Miami-Dade began setting up Monday afternoon to have time to deal with any glitches.

"It was definitely an open question on Sept. 10 whether the problem was the machines or the people running them. Now, it's leaning toward the explanation that it was the people," said Dan Seligson, spokesman for Electionline.org, a nonpartisan election reform research group.

Indeed, three touchscreen machines were misprogrammed at one South Miami precinct, but Miami-Dade County Manager Steve Shiver said no voters were turned away. Paper ballots were used for three hours while the machines were fixed.

"You're never going to have a flawless opening," he said. "The backup system worked."

No early problems were reported Tuesday in Montgomery County, Md., where election judges were retrained on the same kind of touchscreen machines used in Georgia.

Delays in tallying votes occurred there Sept. 10 when election judges were told to bring memory cards from the machines to election headquarters even though the machines are designed to send in the results they contained by computer modem. Instead of removing just the cards, some judges hauled entire machines to election headquarters. The results of a tight congressional race weren't known until 1 a.m.

Montgomery County officials subsequently hired an additional 1,000 poll workers and equipped most polling stations with modems.

For Tuesday's elections, 510 of the nation's counties -- or 16 percent -- were using electronic voting systems, up from 293 counties in 2000, according to Election Data Services.

Georgia, which spent $54 million on the new machines, accounts for most of the increase.

Voting also went well during the morning in the nation's largest county to go all-electronic: Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston. Harris' new system uses 5.2-pound machines that look like personal digital assistants on steroids. Voters use a dial to highlight names.

"It was so easy," said voter Amy Schreider, 57, who owns a small roofing company with her husband. "It took two seconds."

Other states with counties debuting high-tech equipment included Louisiana and Mississippi.

Many of the counties rushed to replace outdated equipment to avoid a balloting fiasco like the one that besmirched the 2000 presidential vote in Florida. And that meant that machines were deployed more quickly than reasonable, analysts say.

Any major problems Tuesday would foreshadow trouble for 2004, when more states will have high-tech machines thanks to a new $3.9 billion federal law to help states replace outdated equipment.


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