Documents detail more voting machine flaws
July 9, 2004
By Mary Ellen Klas
TALLAHASSEE - As state and Miami-Dade County election officials work to approve software that will clear up a nagging problem with touch-screen voting machines, a Herald review of internal election department documents has found that there are a host of other flaws that have never been publicly acknowledged and are not expected to be fixed by the new programming.
The situation has led to a fractious relationship between Miami-Dade, the state and the touch-screen machine maker, Electronic Systems & Software of Omaha, Neb. At one point, a state Division of Elections e-mail shows, Miami-Dade Assistant County Attorney Murray Greenberg threatened to sue the company -- and make it ''close up shop nationally'' -- if more problems were discovered with the equipment that was certified as working two years ago.
In a June 3 letter to ES&S, obtained by The Herald in a public records request, Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections Constance Kaplan demanded answers to three problems with the iVotronic equipment that she said could take ''labor intensive and costly'' actions to fix. She asked ES&S to resolve these issues ``expeditiously:''
-- The central database machines used to tabulate votes are incapable of holding all the audit data at once, requiring a ''labor intensive and costly'' solution that could complicate a recount in a close race. Audit data is used to back up the system.
-- The optical scanners used to read absentee ballots have problems when information is merged from the three machines the county uses.
-- And the county could potentially mix up votes if it were to try to use phone lines to transmit data from the polling places to the election center, which it doesn't plan to do.
ES&S Senior Vice President Ken Carbullido responded to Kaplan on June 14, noting that each of the problems could be resolved if the county alters its procedures, reconfigures its software or, if it wants to transmit data from the polling places, redo the programming code in the machines or retrain its staff.
He acknowledged on Thursday, however, that the problems are ''separate issues'' from the so-called ''audit anomaly'' ...
All of the problems can be addressed by the November election if Miami-Dade officials make a few changes in the way they use the equipment, said Doug Jones, a University of Iowa computer expert the county hired to independently review its electronic voting system and make recommendations.
But, Jones said, the extent of the flaws expose a major failing of the system: ``The fundamental problem is the data formats used were never designed to handle a county as big as Miami-Dade.''
Carbullido, the ES&S vice president, disagrees with that conclusion, saying that the company's machines are used by even larger counties, like Chicago's Cook County.
The e-mails and correspondence from April 15 to June 28 obtained by The Herald show that state election officials were caught completely off guard in mid-May when the story broke about the audit-trail problem in ES&S' iVotronic touch-screen machines.
The state first blamed Miami-Dade officials and then directed their fire at ES&S. Paul Craft, head of the Division of Elections' certification department, which has to approve equipment and software before it can be used, blamed ES&S for filing an incomplete application for certification.
''The [audit trail] anomaly is present in the [touch-screen] systems used in all counties,'' Craft wrote on May 15. ...
'The state of Florida desires a `very detailed explanation,' as neither Paul nor I can accept this anomaly being described as a random event,'' Drury wrote in an e-mail to ES&S account representative Sue McKay on May 25.
And Greenberg, the Miami-Dade assistant county attorney, chastised an analyst with the state Division of Elections for writing a letter to Secretary of State Glenda Hood and creating a public record of the problem.
While tensions are still raw, Jones said, he noted that he is ``impressed by Miami-Dade officials and their willingness to admit they have a problem.''
Jones said the problem rests with the software, known as Unity, and added that it is up to ES&S to decide how far it wants to go to make it better able to perform in large counties.
The lesson, Jones said, is ``the belief that a software program is correct is almost always wrong.''
''All we have are a choice between imperfect systems,'' he said. ``Frankly, the work Miami-Dade has done up to this point leaves me fairly confident they can do a good job.''