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Critics decry ballot technology

Thu., Oct. 14, 2004

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – A computer crash that forced a pre-election test of electronic voting machines to be postponed was trumpeted by critics as proof of the balloting technology’s unreliability.

The incident in Palm Beach County – infamous for its hanging and pregnant chads during the 2000 presidential election – did not directly involve the touch-screen terminals on which nearly one in three U.S. voters will cast ballots on Election Day.

But critics of the ATM-like machines said it proved how fickle any computer-based voting system can be and highlighted the need for touch-screens to produce paper records.

Tuesday’s public dry run had to be postponed until Friday because excessive heat caused a computer server that tabulates data from the touch-screen machines to crash, said county elections supervisor Theresa LePore. Such “logic and accuracy” tests are required by law.

She said she suspected Hurricane Jeanne, which struck in September, may have zapped electricity and air conditioning to the room where the server was stored, causing temperatures to soar to 90 degrees or more. The storm wiped out power to nearly 1.3 million homes and businesses throughout Florida.

The incident raised questions in the minds of computer hardware and software engineers about the reliability of other computers on which Floridians will depend for an accurate vote count on Nov. 2 – especially touch-screen machines.

An Achilles’ heel of electronic voting equipment, just like any machines whose circuits get hot with colliding electrons, is its inability to tolerate extreme conditions, many experts say.

“Heat is a very serious problem for these machines, especially in Louisiana and Florida,” said Dan Spillane, former senior testing engineer of touch-screens for a small equipment manufacturer in Seattle. “Basically, these things work in the secretary of state’s office. Outside of that, no one knows.”

LePore, who lost a re-election bid and will be replaced as supervisor in January, said the incident did not result in deleted or altered data and she predicted a smooth election on Nov. 2.

“We can always go back if everything totally crashes and burns,” she said. “We still have the info on the cartridges and the voting machines.”


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