High-tech voting systems win poll praise

Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Although some devices crashed or need to be reprogrammed, touchscreen and other high-tech voting machines experienced few problems Tuesday as they made their full-scale debut in more than 200 counties nationwide.

Anxious to avoid the kind of snags that created Florida's primary mess and lesser troubles in Maryland 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.

One touchscreen machine locked up and crashed as Mary Perdue, the wife of Georgia's Republican gubernatorial candidate Sonny Perdue, was casting her ballot. Officials rebooted the computer, and she continued with ease.

Only a few problems, meanwhile, were reported in the Florida counties of Miami-Dade and Broward where difficulties with high-tech machines had thrown the Sept. 10 primary into confusion. 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."

Miami-Dade and Broward election officials had stepped up poll worker training and added hundreds of workers to troubleshoot the machines.

"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.

Three touchscreen machines were misprogrammed at one South Miami precinct Tuesday, 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."

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, an independent research company in Washington, D.C.

In Montgomery County, Md., which uses the same machines as Georgia, voting appeared to go smoothly although officials said a programming error caused machines at 30 precincts to display a ballot with a header reading "Democratic."

The header is usually blank, but the glitch wouldn't affect how ballots were cast or tabulated, said Margie Roher, an elections administrator.

Delays in tallying votes occurred in Montgomery County on Sept. 10 when election judges were told to bring memory cards from the machines to election headquarters. In fact, the machines are designed to send in their results by computer modem. Instead of removing just the cards, some judges even hauled entire machines to 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.

Voting also went well Tuesday 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.

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

Many 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.

If there were major problems Tuesday, it could 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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