Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Miami-Dade's elections chief urges new system

This big news this week comes out of Florida, where the elections supervisor of Miami-Dade is recommending that the county replace its touchscreen voting system with a paper-based, optical scan system. Activists working for election verification have been urging jurisdictions across the country to rely on paper systems rather than electronic. California's Solano County was the first in the state, and perhaps the nation, to move from electronic to paper. If Miami Dade were to do likewise, it may lead other counties to reconsider their decisions as well.

In California, Alameda County will be deciding soon what it will do to meet the state's new voter verified paper trail requirement. The elections department has recommended to the Board of Supervisors that the county negotiate with Diebold to trade in their Accuvote TS machines and replace them with TSx machines with voter verified paper trail printers, at an estimated cost of $5 million. But Alameda and other large California counties faced with meeting the paper trail requirement may do well to consider the ongoing costs of maintaining an all-electronic system.

That's what Miami-Dade did. The county not only looked at security concerns; they also looked at all the costs, from batteries to personnel overtime, in considering their future plans. Knight-Ridder published an excellent story on Sunday providing an analysis of those costs in Miaimi-Dade.

Many counties bought touchscreens because they wanted to save paper ballot printing costs; however, in most if not all jurisdictions those cost savings have been eclipsed by added costs associated with maintaining the electronic equipment and unexpected cost overruns when "glitches" occur.

Excerpts from the Sun-Sentinel's May 28 story about the Miami Dade election supervisor's recommendation:


After repeated embarrassing glitches at the polls, elections officials in Miami-Dade County have recommended scrapping the county's $24.5 million electronic voting system in favor of paper ballots with optical scanners.

Supervisor of Elections Lester Sola made the recommendation Friday in an initial analysis of the county's voting system and the feasibility of adopting a new one. In his report, Sola said that adopting the simpler system could save county taxpayers millions and restore voter confidence by providing a paper record of ballots cast.

In April, an outraged Mayor Carlos Alvarez requested a study on the merits of the optical scan system after revelations that the Elections Department lost hundreds of votes during the March 8 slot machine referendum because of a coding error.

The revelations led former Supervisor of Elections Constance Kaplan to resign on March 31 and were the latest embarrassing chapter in the county's elections. Sola took over the same day.

Alvarez also fumed that the current system has increased the cost of running an election to about $7 million per election.

Sola's report comes days after a voter advocacy group released a disparaging report that cited a litany of problems during last fall's general elections, among them malfunctioning voting machines.

After County Manager George Burgess reviews Sola's report, the issue could head to county commissioners, who could decide to switch systems Sola estimated that replacing the voting machines with paper ballots and optical scanners would take at least 15 months.


In his report, Sola recommended that county leaders move carefully in exploring purchasing a new system.

But Sola said an initial analysis showed that the county would save more than $13 million over five years with an optical scan system through lower operating costs and the elimination of costly maintenance expenses.


Excerpts from the Knight-Ridder story:


Miami-Dade's controversial paperless voting machines cost taxpayers about $6.6 million to operate during November's presidential election - about twice what officials budgeted.

Meanwhile, Orange County, which has a voting population roughly half the size of Miami-Dade's, spent less than $2 million to run its comparatively low-tech optical scan machines - less than a third of Miami-Dade's cost.

With a newly appointed elections supervisor set to weigh in by the end of this week on whether Miami-Dade should jettison its highly touted, $24.5 million iVotronic touch-screen system, the expenses it generates for each election - which include programming, setting up and securing the machines and printing backup ballots - will be a major factor in the decision.

"The cost is something that we're looking at very closely," said Lester Sola. "That, and voter confidence."

But comparing Miami-Dade's costs with Orange County's "is not apples to apples," said Bill Cowles, Orange County's elections supervisor. For example, Cowles' department listed the major expenses for the November elections at $1.12 million - a number that did not include costs such as overtime for staffers. The single biggest expenditure listed: $526,700 for ballots.

"There are a lot of costs associated with optical scan, too," Cowles said, citing printing costs and ballot storage. Orange County, which includes Orlando, is the most populated county to use optical scan devices as its sole voting apparatus. Manatee County also uses optical scan devices.

Miami-Dade's expenses included $1.4 million in overtime costs alone. Other costs stemmed from a massive voter outreach effort before the election and from officials' deploying technical experts to the polls to make sure touch-screen machines operated properly.

Now, as part of its evaluation of whether to keep the iVotronics, the county will have to balance its costs against the optical scanners - and judge how each would play out in the challenge of running an election in a major urban area, Sola said.

A key selling point for the iVotronic machines in 2002 was the promise that they could cater to the needs of increasingly diverse, logistically complicated elections.

"There was the idea that this would help deal with these issues, when in reality, that may not have been the case," said Sola, who was not part of the elections department at the time.

Sola was tapped to oversee Miami-Dade elections after the unexpected resignation of Constance Kaplan, who left in March after revelations that a computer coding error dumped hundreds of votes in an election that month. The same coding error was detected in several other municipal elections during the past year.

Officials have said the mistake did not affect the elections' outcomes, but County Manager George Burgess directed Sola to look into replacing the iVotronics with the optical scan devices.

Since then, staffers have been crunching numbers.

Here are some of the big-ticket costs associated with the iVotronics:

• Back-up batteries for each of the 7,200 iVotronic machines - at $147 a pop - totaled more than $1 million. Election Systems & Software, the company that makes the iVotronics, recommends replacing the batteries every three to five years.

• Batteries for the 7,600 handheld devices that activate the machines cost $8 each - or $60,800 total.

• Sola estimates that the county would need another 1,000 iVotronics - at about $4,000 apiece - by the next presidential election in 2008. Outfitting the county with an optical scan system could run an estimated $8 million, according to a memo drafted by Kaplan last year.

There also is the issue of the technical support required for the iVotronics.

The original purchasing contract included more than 400 days' worth of project-manager support from ES&S - but those days were gone by the end of the first year, a period that included the disastrous September 2002 primary.

Now, the county negotiates the rate and number of days for ES&S support in advance of elections. That price has been as high as $1,100 a day, per person.

For the 2004 election cycle, the county commission approved a contract that anticipated $294,000 in technical support. ES&S spokeswoman Megan McCormick declined to speak on the specifics of the Miami-Dade contract, citing company policy, but said the county's use of support staff "was consistent with what we have in other counties."

In Broward, which also uses ES&S iVotronics, the county spent slightly more than $100,000 for the November election in support from the Omaha-based company, with rates up to $1,800 a day, said deputy elections supervisor Gisela Salas.

"It's not like running a punch-card election. It's a lot more work and resources," she said. "But we're pretty comfortable with what we're doing."

No comments:

Post a Comment