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Voting Vendor May Be Ousted
[November 08, 2008]

Voting Vendor May Be Ousted

(Tampa Tribune (FL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Nov. 8--UPDATED: 53 MIN. AGO

TAMPA -- Yet another new voting system for Hillsborough County?

That's a possibility as the county tries to determine what role the newly purchased optical-scan voting machines -- and the system's owner, Premier Election Solutions -- played in Tuesday's election fiasco.

"Premier is clearly an awful vendor," Commissioner Rose Ferlita said. "I think we need to find a vendor that's better in terms of equipment and support. We simply can't let this happen again."

If the machines are scrapped, it will mark the fourth change in Hillsborough County since the infamous hanging chads of 2000.

Those punch-card chads were followed by the security-challenged touch-screen computer machines, which were followed by the optical scanner used Tuesday.

All told, the county and state spent a combined $13 million on the touch screens and optical scans in Hillsborough County.

Getting a new system would involve spending millions more on machines and training.

Busansky To Help Decide

Changing the machines would take a recommendation from newly elected Supervisor of Elections Phyllis Busansky, and a majority vote from the seven-member Hillsborough County Commission.

Busansky, who defeated Buddy Johnson in his re-election bid, wasn't prepared Friday to say if she would hire a new company.

The optical-scan system ground to a halt Tuesday night as Hillsborough elections officials tried to upload 512,000 ballots cast early and on Election Day. Memory cards on each of the voting machines became overloaded and the data couldn't be transferred to machines tabulating the totals.

Johnson insisted Friday that human error played no part in the delay. Rather, he said, the fault lies with Texas-based Premier, which he blames for giving him conflicting information.

"Premier could have done a better job in explaining what the uploading challenges were," Johnson said.

But a September memo from Premier warned elections officials to change memory cards on each machine after "a few thousand ballots have been processed."

Johnson said he called Premier for clarification and was told that as many as 20,000 ballots could be stored on a single memory card. That meant memory cards became overloaded and the votes could not be transferred to the computers tabulating the votes.

A Premier spokesman would not comment Friday on Johnson's claim that they told him a card could handle 20,000 ballots.

After suspending the count Tuesday, it took two days to tabulate the early votes and post the results of several close races.

Critics of Johnson's performance say he badly mismanaged the count.

Johnson said that is "a deflection" from the real problem: Premier's poor guidance. He also criticized Democratic leaders for pointing to flaws without calling his office seeking answers.

Scrap Vendor, Johnson Says

He thinks the county should scrap Premier -- the company he chose to replace the touch-screen system -- and get a new vendor.

But a Premier spokesman said the company wants to work with the county to resolve problems.

"There are things that we can do better," spokesman Chris Riggell said. "We want to work with the county."

Riggell said the responsibility for running the system lies with election officials.

"It's not our role to give instructions," he said. "We provide the equipment, hardware and software, but decisions about how that system is used need to be made by the county."

Premier has 16 years of experience in Florida. Thirty-three of Florida's 67 counties use Premier optical scanners, but only two -- Hillsborough and Sarasota -- use the company's high-speed scanners for counting absentee ballots.

The Texas-based company was formerly known as Diebold Election Systems, a source of controversy through the years, mostly for perceived security flaws in its systems. But Premier had updated its equipment and software and was recertified by the state. It also operated optical-scan machines that produced a paper trail required by Florida law.

Secretary of State Kurt Browning said he stands behind the new technology.

"To my knowledge there are no other counties that had issues with Premier," he said.

To date, Hillsborough has paid Premier $4 million for the system, leaving nearly $2 million to be paid.

If the county decides to hire another company, their choices are limited.

Besides Premier, only two other companies are certified by the state to provide voting machines: Sequoia Voting Systems and Election Systems and Software. Both offer variations on the optical-scan system used by Premier.

Hiring a new company would mean buying new voting machines because the computer coding and security is different for each company.

Either way, members of the county's three-person canvassing board, which include two county commissioners, said the system failure on Election Day might end up in a courtroom as they sort out the contractual obligations of Premier.

"This is likely headed for litigation," Judge James Dominquez, a canvassing board member, said at Thursday night's final vote count.

"Someone needs to be held accountable for this."

Reporter Adam Emerson contributed to this report. Reporter Christian M. Wade can be reached at (813) 259-7679.



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