How Florida's Voting Machine Failed (Again)
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October 10, 2002
How Florida's Voting Machine Failed (Again)
By David F. Carr
The first fiasco in the Florida vote was over paper. The second was electronic. How hard is it to get votes right?
Hanging chads are nothing compared to how untested technology can ruin an election day.
On Sept. 10, the state that produced the 2000 presidential election fiasco was back with a more thoroughly technological version. Having decided to switch to a computerized voting system, the state of Florida may have wound up teaching a primary-day lesson on how not to deploy a new technology.
Florida's largest counties, Miami-Dade and Broward, installed electronic voting devices on an unprecedented scale, spending $24.5 million and $17.2 million, respectively, for touch-screen machines from Election Systems & Software of Omaha. Yet the technology backfired badly enough to raise doubts about whether Tampa lawyer Bill McBride had really won the Democratic nomination for governor over former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. Some of the worst problems occurred in areas where she had the most supporters.
The political firestorm that followed obscured some underlying causes. In Broward, the county surrounding Fort Lauderdale, Supervisor of Elections Miriam Oliphant got most of the blame as a newcomer to this elected post whose inexperience contributed to poor planning. Some polling places didn't open on time because the workers she hired failed to show up, while others closed promptly at 7 p.m. despite an emergency order from Gov. Jeb Bush to stay open until 9 p.m.
Yet the touch-screen device chosen by Broward, ES&S's iVotronic, was actually picked by the county over Oliphant's objections. ES&S had an existing relationship with the county and made the low bid. But Oliphant favored Sequoia Voting Systems because it had more experience with touch-screen voting. Miami-Dade and 10 other counties also chose ES&S's iVotronic. Yet, on voting day, counties like Palm Beach that picked Sequoia's AVC Edge reported fewer problems.
Anyone planning to deploy a computerized device with a unique user interface and setup requirements should pay attention to this cautionary tale. Internal company politics can be just as obstructive, and sometimes rules decisions on vendor selection. Also, electronic voting systems have parallels with other specialized computing devices that are increasingly important to corporate systems: the kiosk in a mall or a cafeteria that must be usable without training; the inventory-tracking device on the receiving dock; the ATM that must be so reliable consumers will trust it with their money.
The unbending deployment deadline in this case was one of several extreme requirements. By banning punch-card ballots and mandating adoption of either touch-screen or optical-scanning systems in time for the 2002 elections, the Florida legislature forced counties into implementing new technology, ready or not.
"They talked to vendors, and they talked to other politicians, but they didn't talk to systems specialists," says Emil R. Phillips, Jr., head of systems development for Miami-Dade elections.
Unlike Broward's Oliphant, Phillips believes ES&S's iVotronic was the right choice, offering key features (such as an audio ballot for blind voters) at the best price. But it was a mistake to make poll workers, rather than technicians, responsible for starting and shutting down the machines—particularly given the rushed preparations, he says.
ES&S was the vendor behind the older Votamatic system, in which voters manually poke holes in a computer punch card. Although this system had been used successfully for years, in 2000 problems developed when the punched-out bits of cardboard, the chads, built up in the hole-punch machines, preventing some voters from recording their votes correctly. Yet with proper maintenance and testing, that old technology might well have performed better than the touch screens this time around.
The iVotronic had never before been deployed on anything like this scale.
Sequoia had more experience with systems that directly record votes on a computerized device, rather than paper or a punch card. Since 1987, it has been supporting a product called AVC Advantage, an electronic equivalent of the old mechanical lever voting machines. The newer AVC Edge uses a touch screen.
Vendor choice was only one of many factors. Election officials had to contend with redistricting at the same time that they were implementing new technology. While Broward and Miami-Dade had the most severe problems, other counties reported a variety of snafus.
Miami-Dade's Phillips felt squeezed between getting the voting machines late and having to work with the vendor on software changes up until a week before the vote. "But nobody is willing to say, 'We'll just have the election on Thursday instead of Tuesday,'" he adds.
Because it wanted to offer the ballot in three languages—English, Spanish and Creole—Miami-Dade chose to employ a version of the iVotronic software that was still under development when the contract was signed this spring. This version used bitmaps for each menu screen, rather than text-based menus. The text-menu version of the software was limited to supporting two languages per machine. But this change complicated matters on election morning because, at start-up, each machine had to download the ballot from a removable data cartridge, and the bitmapped screens took longer—something like the difference between downloading a Web page with a lot of images, and one with only HTML text. By law, workers couldn't start setting up before 6 a.m., and the polls were supposed to open by 7 a.m. Each polling place got one master cartridge containing ballots, which had to be plugged into 10 to 12 voting machines, in sequence, for at least six minutes a machine. One hour wasn't enough.
When 7 a.m. came, some precinct clerks turned voters away rather than let them use whatever fraction of the machines were operational at that point—a procedural error that magnified the technological glitch. That's why Phillips blames most of the problems on human error rather than technology. "The clerks just froze. They didn't follow the instructions that they had," he says.
Victor Wiggert, a poll worker in the Miami-Dade precinct at Palmetto High School, said he wasn't fazed. He has worked with several generations of computers and knows his way around PCs. When eight of the 12 machines at his polling place failed to start, he tried to help. "But whatever I learned about computers was hopeless in this case, faced with a black box that didn't work."
ES&S says it traced most of the problems to improper installation of flash memory cards containing new software. Miami-Dade Supervisor David Leahy had directed ES&S to make a last-minute software change to correct confusing wording on the ballot.
What You Should NOT Do When Introducing New Technology
# Rush. Don't hurry to deploy without paying attention to training, documentation, operational procedures and support
# Go down to the wire. Don't deploy technology or a large scale, high-pressure event without test-driving it through a smaller scale, less-critical trial
# Fail to prepare for the worst. Make sure you have a fallback plan in case something goes terribly wrong
# Set rigid, arbitrary deadlines. Try to build a cushion in case either the technology or the people who must work with it aren't ready
# Change too many things at once. Florida did exactly that by introducing new technology when the voting system was being disrupted by other factors like redistricting--with disastrous results
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