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Government IT Review - Cynthia L. Webb

IT Clouds Over the Sunshine State

By Cynthia L. Webb
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2004; 10:18 AM

The Sunshine State, still smarting from the 2000 presidential election debacle, is once again making headlines for problems with its voting technology, this time with the new high-tech machines that state officials rushed to install to avoid another controversial vote count.

Officials from sprawling Miami-Dade County this week acknowledged that technical problems resulted in the loss of most of the electronic records for the 2002 gubernatorial primary, and the glitch is being held up by e-voting critics as yet another example of the pitfalls and lack of security with touch-screen machines.

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This weekly feature surveys top government IT-related news -- involving all levels of government, from the federal to state and local, and international news. It is designed to give readers a primer on current trends and developments affecting the industry's major and interesting players, surveying news headlines from around the world. Washingtonpost.com's Cynthia L. Webb pens the feature.
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According to the New York Times, which first reported the news on Tuesday, county elections officials said the "records disappeared after two computer system crashes last year." The Times noted that the "news of the lost data comes two months after Miami-Dade elections officials acknowledged a malfunction in the audit logs of touch-screen machines. The elections office first noticed the problem in spring 2003, but did not publicly discuss it until this past May. The company that makes Miami-Dade's machines, Election Systems and Software of Omaha, Neb., has provided corrective software to all nine Florida counties that use its machines."

A Miami Herald article provided more details: "This is not the first problem in preserving reliable records. After a May 2003 election in Miami Beach, Orlando Suarez, division director of Miami-Dade County's technology department, found that the audit log mixed up the serial numbers of voting machines, making it difficult to figure out which machines were where. In an October examination of a Homestead election, Suarez found that the event log failed to report 162 votes. 'I believe that there is/are a serious 'bug' in the program(s) that generate these reports, making the reports unusable for the purpose that we were considering (audit an election, recount an election and, if necessary, use these reports to certify an election),' Suarez wrote" in a June 2003 memo.

County officials maintain that the problems have been fixed. "Seth Kaplan, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade elections division, said on Tuesday that the office had put in place a daily backup procedure so that computer crashes would not wipe out audit records in the future," wrote the New York Times. "We have full confidence in the certified equipment that worked flawlessly in the 2002 elections and in hundreds of successful elections around the state since then," said a spokeswoman for Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood, according to the AP. "There is no reason to suggest that they will not perform just as well in November."

Never Again!

The Miami-Dade election records news was seized on by anti-e-voting activists and Democrats hoping to score points against Florida's elected Republican leaders. "Florida Democrats said Wednesday that they will push for independent monitoring of the electronic machines used by half of the state's voters," the Miami Herald reported.

Lida Rodriguez-Tasseff, chair of the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition -- a voting rights group that uncovered the problem, told the Washington Post: "We are no safer than we were in 2000. We may have even bigger problems that we don't even know about."

"The revelations about lost records in Miami compounded a sense of anxiety among voters' rights groups, some of which are calling for congressional and Justice Department investigations of Florida's system," the Post said. "It is becoming more and more clear every day -- one obstacle after another, one mismanagement after another -- that Florida's secretary of state's office cannot manage its election," Sharon Lettman, deputy national field director of People for the American Way, told the Post.

The troubles in Florida have attracted the attention of muckraking documentarian Michael Moore. Moore, whose anti-Bush administration "Fahrenheit 9/11" is in theaters now, "told Florida delegates that he would come to Florida before the Nov. 2 election 'to put a huge spotlight' on the way the state is preparing to conduct voting in the presidential election," the Miami Herald reported. Members of the state's Democratic congressional delegation are adding more fuel to the fire. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Palm Beach), "who filed unsuccessful lawsuits to require a paper trail, warned that Florida risked a repeat of the 2000 election debacle this fall unless better security, monitoring and poll-worker training is put in place."

In today's headlines, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported, "An embarrassed state Republican Party apologized Thursday for a GOP campaign brochure that urged voters to use absentee ballots, undermining efforts by Gov. Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Glenda Hood to inspire confidence in new touch-screen voting machines."


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