Saturday, April 09, 2005

2001: Optical Scanners Wreak Havoc in FL

NCVV Note: AR optical scanners wreaked some havoc of their own in the 2004 May primary. We vote on optical scanners in 48 of our 75 counties. Optical scanners in at least one county failed to tabulate any votes for four candidates in the US Senate race and the Presidential race, when in fact a hand count resulted in 27 votes discovered for these candidates. The candidates receiving zero votes on the scanners were Republicans.

New system fumbles votes
By Roger Roy and David Damron
Sentinel Staff Writers

May 6, 2001

PENSACOLA -- Escambia County spent more than a half-million dollars on its state-of-the-art voting machines, which are exactly the kind that lawmakers last week mandated be used statewide to avoid a repeat of last year's election debacle.

But what happened in this Panhandle county on Election Day should serve as a warning for the state's expensive effort to reform its election system. As far as Escambia voters were concerned, the sophisticated $5,000 machines stationed in every precinct might as well have been cardboard boxes.

To save time and the expense of extra ballots -- which cost 23 cents each -- Escambia election officials, with a single computer keystroke, deliberately disabled the machines' ability to instantly identify all mismarked ballots and return them to voters to try again.

More than 4,000 Escambia ballots were thrown out because voters never got a chance to correct their mistakes. As many as 3,400 of those votes might have been saved if the machines had been programmed to give voters another chance, as they were elsewhere.

In some precincts, Escambia had three times as many uncounted ballots as in counties using punch cards, which were so widely condemned that the Legislature last week banned them from Florida.

And Escambia County wasn't alone.

The Orlando Sentinel analyzed voting results from 2,008 precincts in the 26 counties that on Nov. 7 already were using election equipment similar to Escambia's. The study found many instances in which error rates actually were higher than in counties with punch-card ballots.

And the machines fell far short of their vote-saving potential. Had all 26 counties with the advanced system done as well as the very best -- Leon County -- more than 12,000 votes might have been saved.

INSTANT ERROR CORRECTION

In theory, the election system on which every Floridian will soon vote is nearly foolproof.

Called optical-scan technology, it uses paper ballots on which voters fill in an arrow or an oval by their candidate's name. Voters feed the ballots into a machine known as an optical scanner, which tabulates votes and can instantly spot any mistakes.

The machine can detect whether more than one vote was cast in a race -- an overvote. It also spots ballots on which it can read no votes, usually because the voter used an improper ink pen or marked the wrong areas of the ballot. When the tabulator detects those errors, it rejects the ballot like a vending machine spitting out a wrinkled dollar bill, and the voter gets a second, or even third, chance.

In counties without precinct-based optical scanners, flawed ballots are discovered only after they've been trucked away to election headquarters to be counted. By that time, the voter is long gone and it's too late for corrections.

But even after the state spends $24 million or more equipping every precinct in the state with the new voting machines, things can still go wrong. In the counties already using those systems, the Sentinel found:

More than 16,000 ballots could not be counted in the presidential election, either because the machine detected no votes or voters marked spaces for more than one candidate. That rejection rate -- less than 1 percent of all ballots cast -- was about five times better than the rate in counties using punch cards. But if it holds up when all 67 Florida counties are using the optical-scan system, there would still be nearly 50,000 uncounted ballots cast in the next presidential election.

Some counties where the machines appeared to work properly still had some precincts with the highest error rates in the state. In some cases, there is evidence that mistakes by poll workers were responsible. But in many cases, election officials simply were unable to explain the large number of flawed ballots.

The errors hit especially hard in precincts with large numbers of black and Democratic voters, another phenomenon election officials could not explain. `OUR BIGGEST DOWNFALL'The Sentinel also found that Escambia wasn't the only county that failed to program its machines in a way that would have reduced the number of uncounted ballots: Manatee County's voting machines also were programmed to simply accept mismarked ballots, even though they couldn't be counted.

The two counties use different brands of precinct tabulators, the only ones in use in Florida. Escambia's OpTech brand is used in Orange County. Manatee's Accu-Vote is identical to the system used in Seminole County.

But despite using different brands of the optical-scan system, Escambia and Manatee election officials programmed them in the same way that wasted thousands of potential votes. They simply turned off a feature that would have made the machines return ballots to voters when the machine detected more than one vote in any race.

Such programming is easy: On the system used in Escambia, it requires a single computer keystroke when setting the machines for each election.

Manatee County Election Supervisor Bob Sweat said he turned off his machine's error-detecting feature because "it slows down the process."

Nearly 1,400 of Manatee's 112,000 presidential ballots couldn't be counted, most because voters had made marks for more than one candidate.

Escambia County Election Supervisor Bonnie Jones, a longtime Democrat now registered with no party affiliation, said her machines had been programmed the same way since they were purchased in 1994. Accepting ballots with mistakes, rather than giving voters a second chance, saved money on extra ballots and moved voters through the polls more quickly, she said.

"It just never came up before," said Jones, who called the programming decision "our biggest downfall."

How election machines were programmed was an obscure issue before November's election, the closest in Florida history.

But Escambia County Commissioner Michael T. Bass said he thought the machines had been programmed to take advantage of their ability to give voters a second chance. He said he was "floored" when he learned otherwise last week.

"When we bought that equipment, we had to really suck up and grit our teeth, because it was quite an expense," said Bass, a Republican. "And we thought it would eliminate those mistakes."

Bass dismissed election officials' explanation of saving money as "just bull----. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for that, and they're worried about 23-cent ballots. They should be embarrassed."

In Leon County, where Election Supervisor Ion Sancho was the first in Florida to switch to precinct tabulators, the machines were programmed to spit out flawed ballots. Less than one-fifth of 1 percent of Leon ballots went uncounted. Escambia's uncounted-ballot rate was 20 times higher.

Sancho said counties that didn't use their equipment to stop mismarked ballots "were shortchanging the voters. To not use these features is to rob the voters of the very technology they spent the extra tax dollars to purchase."

UNEXPLAINED ERRORS

In other counties examined by the Sentinel, the precinct tabulators were properly programmed to stop bad ballots. Still, some precincts in those counties had inexplicably high error rates.

In Columbia County, new precinct tabulators that cost the small county $300,000 last year appeared to work flawlessly -- at first.

"We thought things went very smoothly," said Jean Lear, Columbia's deputy supervisor.

Yet in Columbia, which includes Lake City, 3.6 percent of all presidential ballots in the November election couldn't be counted, nearly as high as the 3.9 percent that were thrown out in Florida's punch-card counties.

And in Precinct 26 in Columbia, 17 percent of all the ballots were thrown out, the highest rate for any precinct with its own tabulator statewide.

About three of every four registered voters in Precinct 26 are black, and nearly nine in 10 are registered Democrats. Columbia election officials could not explain the precinct's high error rate, but said many voters must have chosen not to correct their ballot mistakes.

In those cases, poll workers can press a button that overrides the machine and accepts the ballot, even though it won't be counted.

That happened in one heavily Democratic Orange County precinct, where a poll worker 79 times pressed the override button to accept uncountable ballots. Time stamps on the machine's audit tape indicate the worker probably did so without taking time to explain the problem to voters or give them another chance.

The ballot machines used in Columbia County do not print a detailed audit tape. But Diane Killebrew, a bank teller who was the poll clerk, or chief poll worker, in Precinct 26, said she never used the override button. With the Accu-Vote system used in Columbia, the button is beneath a locked cover, and Killebrew had the key.

Killebrew said there were times when the machine would reject ballots, but when the voter tried again, it would accept them.

THE POWER FAILURE THAT WASN'T

In Bay County's Precinct 23, more than 15 percent of all ballots were thrown out, the third-highest rate anywhere in the 26 counties. Sixty-seven percent of the precinct's voters are registered as Democrats.

Bay election officials first said they suspected an Election Day power failure in that precinct had caused poll workers to use an emergency ballot box, which cannot identify mismarked ballots or return them to voters.

However, an examination of that precinct's audit tape, which lists power failures and machine malfunctions, showed the power had not failed. Bay County Election Supervisor Mark Andersen speculated that "bad pens" may have been used in the precinct, causing a high rate of ballots to be unreadable by the machine.

"There is no real on-the-surface explanation for it," Bay County Democratic Party Chairman John Carter said of the mistakes in Precinct 23. "I don't have even a suspicion that it was an equipment failure."

In most cases, election officials not only did not know why some precincts had much higher error rates than others, they were not concerned with finding out. Officials in most counties where those precincts were located said they had not examined their error rates or tried to identify the causes.

"We haven't looked into that," said Gene Crist, assistant election supervisor in Bay County.

A `WORKING CLASS' PROBLEM

Whatever the reason for them, the errors tended to hurt black voters and Democrats the worst.

In precincts with optical scanners, only 9 percent of the registered voters are black. But in the 64 precincts where the uncounted vote rate was the worst, 50 percent of the registered voters are black.

Nearly 3,300 of the 37,000 votes cast in those precincts were uncounted. Because the precincts are also 72 percent Democratic, many of those lost votes would likely have gone to Democrat Al Gore had they been salvaged.

The results in just two Escambia polling places demonstrate how the errors tilted toward black and Democratic precincts:

In heavily Republican Precinct 110, which includes the conservative Pensacola Christian College, Bush won 98 percent of the vote, and the error rate was less than 1 percent.

In Precinct 76, where blacks comprise 79 percent of all registered voters, Gore won 93 percent of the vote, but nearly 16 percent of all ballots were thrown out, the second-highest rate in the state.

With rare unanimity, state Democratic and Republican leaders agree that blacks and Democrats were the most likely to have their votes thrown out.

Florida Democratic Chairman Bob Poe said it might be because blacks in the November election were more likely to be first-time or infrequent voters. A high proportion of "working class" voters might tend to jam the polls before and after work, and black precincts on average have more voters in them, Poe said.

REFORMS CAN GO ONLY SO FAR

But many of the optical-scan precincts with the highest error rates are relatively small. And poll workers in some of the worst precincts reported no unusual jams or rushes of voters.

Al Cardenas, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, said "We haven't really looked at it in a way that a person could have an educated guess."

Whatever the cause, there's no evidence that Florida's switch to uniform use of optical-scan voting equipment will end the disproportionate number of errors in black precincts.

The election reforms passed and funded by the Legislature will no doubt reduce the number of uncounted ballots in Florida. Even if error rates don't decline with more attention to voter and poll-worker education, the switch to the new equipment will cut uncounted ballots by two-thirds.

But Jim Smith, a former secretary of state who co-chaired a state election-reform task force, said Florida voters shouldn't get their hopes too high.

The final report of Smith's task force began with a lofty aim: "The goal is perfection."

The reality will be a little more down-to-earth, Smith conceded.

"Believe me," Smith said, "given human ingenuity, people will screw it up."

http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/nationworld/orl-newsystem,1,7554271.story?ctrack=1&cset=true

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