Out of Touch

You press the screen. The machine tells you that your vote has been counted. But how can you be sure?

The Broward County Commission began looking into replacing the county's punch cards in early 2001. Commissioner Ben Graber recalls that there was consensus among the commissioners then that they should go with optical scanners, but they met with fierce resistance from Miriam Oliphant, the new elections supervisor. "We didn't want the touch screens because we were not sure of the technology," he says. "It was new, and it was expensive. We had concerns about the security and that there was no paper trail. We had our first meeting where we pretty much agreed that we wanted optical scanners. Then Miriam went out and started this campaign in the condos to get the touch screens approved. We started getting letters, people yelling at us, telling us we were backward. Editorial boards started saying it should be touch screens. So we said, 'The public wants touch screens; we're going to have to go with touch screens.'"

Commissioner Sue Gunzburger also contends that Oliphant put the commission in an "impossible position politically" by selling the voters on touch screens.

Oliphant denies claims that she swayed the public. "We went around this county to determine what the people wanted, between optical and [touch-screen] technology," she recalls. "I wasn't pushing a particular vendor; I was concerned about [the] kind of voting system." Senior citizens and disabled people overwhelmingly called for touch screens, she says.

Colby Katz
After he lost a Boca Raton election last year, Emil Danciu and his daughter Charlotte sued the Palm Beach County elections office
Colby Katz
After he lost a Boca Raton election last year, Emil Danciu and his daughter Charlotte sued the Palm Beach County elections office

Looking back, however, she believes the state and county moved too quickly in embracing the new technology. "What I know today, I wish we would have waited," she says. Still, she doesn't think an optical-scan system, which is currently used to count absentee ballots, would work in a county as large as Broward. "When we look at the number of absentee ballots that we have to scan, about 70,000, and I look at the paper jams... what if we were doing 700,000?"

County commissioners and elections supervisors from Florida's most populous counties quickly rejected the idea of upgrading to optical-scan systems, largely because they involved paper ballots, which were anathema after November 2000. That left the touch-screen machines. With multimillion-dollar sales at stake in each county, the companies that produce them lobbied ferociously and, at times, oversold a relatively new technology.

Broward commissioner Graber recalls an Election Systems & Software (ES&S) representative telling the commission that the machines were 100 percent accurate. "And I said, 'You're already lying, because nothing is 100 percent accurate if it's made by a human being,'" Graber says.

Some of the lobbying was of dubious ethicality. The Broward State Attorney's Office is currently investigating the County Commission's $17.2 million purchase of touch screens from ES&S in October 2001, according to the Sun-Sentinel. Three commissioners -- Josephus Eggelletion, Ilene Lieberman, and Lori Parrish -- had ties to the ES&S lobbyists. The three have maintained that their choice of ES&S was based solely on quality.

Among the lobbyists hired by ES&S was Republican Sandra Mortham, who was Harris' predecessor as Florida secretary of state and also a lobbyist for the Florida Association of Counties (FAC). In June 2001, the FAC, which represents and advises the state's county commissioners, endorsed ES&S as its choice to replace banned voting equipment in Florida. In a deal reported only later in the media, ES&S had agreed to pay a percentage of its profits to the FAC for each county that purchased its equipment. Mortham also received a commission for each county that bought ES&S machines.

"I objected to it strenuously," Leon County's Sancho says. "I called it unethical."

The selection process became mired in ethical conflicts in Pinellas County after county commissioners there learned in July 2001 that ES&S had close ties to Deborah Clark, the elections supervisor. As reported in the St. Petersburg Times, during the time Clark was deputy elections supervisor, her husband, Richard Clark, worked for ES&S. In 1995, Dorothy Ruggles, then the elections supervisor, signed a $186,000 contract with ES&S for voter registration software, with an additional $112,000 annual software fee until 2000. Richard Clark resigned from ES&S shortly before his wife became elections supervisor in 2000, and he founded his own firm that installs and repairs voting machines. His work had been confined to Alabama, but ES&S was his only client, the Times noted. As a result, the County Commission decided to appoint a citizens' committee to review the companies' proposals.

Pinellas commissioners, however, were in store for more surprises when the Times reported in October 2001 that a key employee for front-runner Sequoia Voting Systems had been indicted in January for an elections kickback scheme in Louisiana. Phil Foster, a regional sales vice president, was allegedly involved in a conspiracy and money-laundering scheme that involved the sale of machine parts at inflated prices and kickbacks of nearly $600,000. Sequoia was not involved, nor was the company charged.

Still, the revelation disturbed commission Chairman Calvin Harris, who told the Times that he assumed the state had checked out the competing companies while their machines were being certified. Not so, said Clay Roberts, director of the state's Division of Elections, who maintained that background checks were a job for counties. "That's outside our expertise and our mandate," Clay told the Times. "Our role is to do the testing and to make sure the system works."

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