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Hillsborough vote tallying problems blamed on new optical scanners

TAMPA — The vote-counting machine that caused an election snag in Hillsborough County was new equipment that had never been used in an election anywhere in the country before Tuesday.

Chris Riggall, a spokesman for Premier Election Systems, said the high-speed optical scanners designed to count absentee ballots were introduced last year, and are certified for use only in Florida.

"It's a brand new product," he said.

Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson acknowledged Wednesday that his staff had not run a test of this particular function of the equipment.

He said the staff did the legally required accuracy tests before the primary election, but that did not include merging ballot counts from the high-speed scanner with results from a different type of scanner used in the precincts.

Such a test is not required by the state, Johnson said.

An inability to marry the two databases delayed posting of election results for more than two hours on election night.

Johnson insisted that, despite the glitch, the election was flawless.

But Phyllis Busansky, a Democrat running against Johnson for the supervisor of elections post in November, wasted no time making hay of the issue.

She sent out a news release Wednesday afternoon, saying Johnson appeared confused when she showed up at the Elections Service Center on Tuesday, and he couldn't offer clear explanations of the problem.

"I have managed much more complex undertakings," Busansky said.

'There is no problem'

Under extreme pressure on Tuesday, Johnson became visibly irritated when a television reporter interviewed Busansky in his offices.

He peeked through a meeting room doorway as she told the reporter she had come there because she heard there was a problem.

"There is no problem," Johnson interrupted, then slammed the door behind him.

Officials with Premier Election Solutions, the Texas company that sold the system to Hillsborough County, said the tally hit a roadblock because the high-speed machine counting the absentee ballots was in test mode and rejected the counting of ballots tagged as part of a live election.

"You were able to tabulate your absentees, and you were able to tabulate your regular election day totals. The difficulty was in combining those tabulated totals into one consolidated result," Riggall said.

The same machine caused problems in Sarasota on Tuesday.

In Hillsborough, the absentee ballots were recounted Wednesday morning without any hangups, he said.

Johnson said there should be no concern about using the equipment in the general election, and even though the county was slow reporting results compared to much of the state on Tuesday, the vote count was accurate.

"Can we be sure about November? The question really should be can you promise us that you'll be finished by 9:30 or 10. No. We can't promise that," he said. "This was a speed of uploading issue. Can I promise you that the votes will be counted accurately? Absolutely, because we have the best system available."

Premier responsible

Kathy Rogers, vice president of governmental affairs for Premier, said the company accepts responsibility for the problem.

Riggall said Premier may not have trained Johnson's staff properly, and the documentation on how to use the hardware and software should be more clear.

"We don't run the election," he said. "That is a local function. Having said that, it's clearly our issue, Premier's issue, that the county did not have the information they (staffers) needed."

Hillsborough County spent nearly $5.8-million on the Premier election system. About $4-million has been paid to the company, including a payment for staff training.

The contract calls for the rest of the money to be paid after Premier provides staff support in the primary and general elections.

Johnson said at this point he's not considering withholding any payments.

"I don't believe in threatening like that. It's not my style," Johnson said.

Jennifer Davis, a spokeswoman for state elections chief Kurt Browning, said the office had no comment on what happened with Hillsborough's election, and is still gathering information from Premier, Johnson and the state technical staff that monitored Tuesday's election.

"What we've been told is everything was tested and everything was fine," she said. "That's why we need to get together with our technical staff and find out what happened."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Hillsborough vote tallying problems blamed on new optical scanners 08/27/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2008 2:50pm]
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