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Human, voting system errors a concern in Florida

No matter how much or how well you test a system, human error can still bring the whole thing down. The voting system in now-infamous Palm Beach County in Florida is one example. Since the 2000 presidential election (at least), the county has dealt with significant system and human errors in its voting system.

The 2000 presidential election, with Al Gore (D) and George W. Bush (R) on the ticket, brought us the punch-card ballot that was designed in a butterfly format. The candidates were listed on both sides of the ballot rather than just on one side in order to save space — and printing costs. What the designers did not consider was the confusion this would cause for its senior citizen voters — of which there are many in the county. Even I — still a young-ish person — was thrown by the layout and rechecked my voting several times before leaving the voting booth.

What resulted was several votes cast for Pat Buchanan rather than Gore. Usability testing was either overlooked or done very badly. So, we have design errors combined with human error.

More human error came to light when the vote was so close that it required a recount. Several things happened: some districts could not find the election machines — volunteers did not return them to the district and had left them in the polling locations — the electronic tally came out with a different result but still too close to determine a winner.

That led to the dimpled and hanging chads in the ballots’ hand count. (If you don’t know, a chad is the tiny piece of paper that is punched through on a ballot.) Lawmakers had to decide if such chads represented the will of the voters. More than two weeks after the Nov. 7 election, a Florida Circuit Court Judge decided that they do. How do you get dimpled chads? You get them when people don’t push the pin hard enough. And you get them when the voting machine hasn’t been cleaned out and hundreds of other chads jam the machine — preventing voters from pushing their chads out completely. The entire chad thing could have been prevented if the machines were maintained properly.

As a result of that voting fiasco, the county decided to switch to electronic voting. It will solve all those problems, supervisors were told, and they rushed out to spend $56 million to implement e-voting machines. They saw demonstrations of the machines, but they did not ask about nor were they told about possible security problems. It wasn’t until the machines were purchased that the security issues came to light. Those machines were easy to hack, and by decision of the state they did not have a paper trail. That meant recounts were impossible. (Read’s story on e-voting flaws.)

The 2004 presidential election did not have as much drama or controversy as the 2000 election, but throughout it and local elections thereafter, legislators fought for some kind of paper trail. That did not happen and so the county has a whole new voting system for 2008. Unfortunately, it too has problems.

The new voting system is now a paper ballot on which voters are asked to fill in the missing gap of an arrow that points to the candidate they are voting for. And then feed the ballot into an optical scanner. During the recent primary election, again there was voter confusion. People did not know what to do, so they drew a thin line or circled the person’s name. Neither technique counts.

That election, too, had a controversy — this time for the Palm Beach County Circuit Judge race. It was another close vote, which requires a recount. However, for the first recount some ballots were missing and those results were thrown out. They eventually found the ballots, did a second recount but experienced a problem with the tabulation machines. Then an additional 156 ballots turned up. A third recount finally resulted in a winner.

Since then, a test of the high-speed counting machines, requested by the lawyers for the person who lost the election, found the machines couldn’t count the same ballots the same way twice. That’s just great (she said sarcastically).

Here we are just weeks away from the next presidential election, with Florida considered a swing state, and system and human errors again threaten to disrupt election proceedings — if not create chaos.

Only 4,093 people voted in the recent primary election; for the Nov. 4 election, more than 800,000 people have registered to vote. Just voting is expected to be painful, with long lines expected. But even if you get through that, adding up the final tallies from all the precincts is expected to take significantly longer, and there’s a chance your vote won’t be counted.

Needless to say, people here are concerned.

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