Florida election spotlights IT training need

MIAMI -- As Florida deals with another election gone wrong this week, the spotlight is on untrained poll workers who had difficulty operating new electronic-voting systems bought precisely to prevent election-day problems.

The embarrassing situation, which has some candidates pondering whether to file lawsuits and demand recounts, highlights an old IT maxim: A computer system is effective only if people know how to use it.

Florida's latest election fiasco also serves as a warning to counties nationwide that even electronic-voting technology can't ensure a smooth election. The voting system, be it punch-card based or computer-based, must be staffed with properly trained poll workers, observers said.

"This proves the point that changing the technology isn't the magic solution that will end all [election] problems. It's just part of the solution, and it may not be even the main part," said Tova Andrea Wang, special counsel and program officer at the Century Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit research organization that addresses election reform and other public policy issues.

"The focus should be more on training poll workers and voters, regardless of the technology," she said, adding that the latest election problem shows that Congress needs to step in to improve the election process nationwide.

The Florida Legislature outlawed punch-card systems after the chaotic 2000 U.S. presidential election and ordered all 67 counties in the state to have either a touch-screen computer-based system or an optical-reader paper-based system in place by Tuesday's primary elections. In the 2000 election, George W. Bush was elected president after a recount of Florida votes that was triggered by irregularities discovered in the balloting.

Miami-Dade and Broward counties, where most of the problems occurred in 2000 and again this week, spent millions of dollars to replace their decades-old punch-card systems with electronic-voting systems from Election Systems & Software (ES&S) Inc. in Omaha.

The new iVotronic systems include wireless touch-screen terminals and feature the ability to transmit precinct results electronically, via modem, to election headquarters. Expectations had been high that Tuesday's elections would go off smoothly, with all counties using either optical readers or touch-screen systems. In fact, 10 other counties in Florida used the iVotronic system on Tuesday, according to a statement from ES&S.

But things went very wrong in Broward and in Miami-Dade, including voting delays and tabulation errors that have thrown into question the integrity of the election, which had some close races, including the Democratic primary for governor that former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno lost by about 8,000 votes, according to the latest tallies. Broward and Miami-Dade are the most populous counties in Florida, and each has more than 900,000 registered voters.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Jeb Bush said that Florida's State Department is assessing the problems but declined further comment. Repeated calls to the Florida State Department and the Miami-Dade and Broward supervisors of elections have gone unanswered.

The reports coming out of Florida this week underscore that the legislature's election-reform efforts shouldn't have been focused on the voting technology, an analyst said.

"The problem with the election in 2000 wasn't really the voting equipment. It contributed to the problem, but it wasn't the whole problem," said Christopher Baum, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. "The main problems were the inadequate procedures and poll-worker training. There needs to be a realization from top state and county officials that an election is a 365-day process."

The purchase of an electronic-voting system should be seen as only one part of a multiphase election reform process, said Rishi Sood, another Gartner analyst.

Ample anecdotal evidence gathered this week by local media revealed a widespread ignorance by poll workers in Miami-Dade and Broward counties about how to use the new systems, including basics such as how to boot up the machines properly, which caused many machines to freeze and crash. When the limited technical support staff available managed to get to the polling places, they were able to get the machines working properly, but there weren't enough technicians to solve problems on a timely basis, according to published reports. Consequently, delays at the polling places caused many to leave without voting.

An even more serious problem became evident Thursday, when Miami-Dade officials admitted that there are significant discrepancies between tabulated votes and the number of registered voters in at least four precincts, according to The Miami Herald. "When you get one vote in a place with 1,500 registered voters, you know there's something wrong," David Leahy, Miami-Dade's election supervisor, told the newspaper. It's unclear whether human or mechanical error caused that problem.

In a statement Thursday, ES&S said its system "accurately captured 100% of the votes which were cast. No votes were lost or not counted."

"ES&S is concerned with the problems which occurred in the voting process in Miami-Dade and Broward counties during this week's primary election. We will be doing a thorough analysis of all reported issues and providing details on our findings to our clients at the respective County Election Boards," the statement said.

Recruiting and training poll workers is a challenge nationwide, because the job pays little and it's hard to find people interested in doing it, said Ernest Hawkins, director of elections and voter registration in Sacramento County, Calif., and a past president of the National Association of County Recorders, Election Officials and Clerks.

The training involved in using electronic-voting systems is more complicated than with a manual system, he said. Compounding the issue is that a large percentage of poll workers are retirees, who generally aren't as comfortable with computer technology as younger people, he said. Fear of dealing with computers may explain why so many poll workers failed to show up on election day in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, Hawkins said.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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