Originally created 11/05/02

Touchscreen Voting Suffers Glitch



Scattered problems, a few serious but most described as hiccups, marred the debut of touchscreens and other high-tech voting machines Tuesday, including in all of Georgia and in Florida's most election-challenged counties.

The most serious appeared in two Georgia counties where officials said they could result in contested elections and lawsuits. The state has the nation's largest deployment: 22,000 touchscreens.

In southwest Terrell County near Albany, ballots in at least three precincts for a time listed the wrong county commission races. In Bryan County near Savannah, a county commission race was omitted from a ballot.

Elsewhere, some machines froze up and others had to be rebooted. Dozens were misprogrammed or not accurately calibrated, and cards voters need to access machines malfunctioned.

``They are locking up, and we have to turn them off and turn them on. The voting is taking a little longer," said Mary Cranford, election superintendent in Georgia's Coweta County.

But those troubles did not look to have the potential to cascade into the meltdown seen during the Sept. 10 primaries in Florida, where Democratic gubernatorial contest results were delayed for a week.

Analysts said better planning and training of poll workers in operating the machines paid off, though some cautioned that the new systems' reliability can't be guaranteed.

"A lot of these products were rushed to market," said Rebecca Mercuri, a Bryn Mawr College computer science professor and expert on election technology.

The addition of more than 200 brings to 510 the number of counties nationwide with electronic voting systems, according to Election Data Services, a Washington, D.C., research company. That's 16 percent of counties representing one in five registered voters.

Analysts expect 75 percent of counties to have such systems within six years, boosted largely by a new $3.9 billion federal law to help states replace outdated equipment.

Election officials were anxious heading into Tuesday, given problems with touchscreens during September primaries in Florida and Maryland. They stepped up poll-worker training to better cope with any machine failures.

"It was definitely an open question on September 10th 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 group.

In Florida's Miami-Dade County, one of two most troubled during the primaries, machines were misprogrammed at one precinct, meaning voters had to use substitute paper ballots for the first three hours.

Forty to 50 touchscreen machines scattered among more than 5,000 in Broward County had to be taken offline because of incorrectly loaded software or the wrong ballot, officials said.

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

"Any time you have that many new computers, you're going to have some problems, but the workers handled it well," she said.

No troubles were reported in the nation's largest county to go all-electronic: Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston. Harris' system uses a dial to highlight names rather than a touchscreen.

Mercuri warned that some problems with the new touchscreen systems may never be known because they lack paper backups for double-checking ballots.

Diebold Election Systems, which supplied machines for Georgia and Maryland, said election officials never asked for such features.