Hillsborough election fixes up to Busansky

TAMPA ­— It was nearly 3 a.m. on election night, and elections supervisor Buddy Johnson told reporters the "gloves were off."

Asked if he might dump Premier Election Solutions, the company that supplied his voting machines, Johnson said yes.

But Premier may stay as Johnson leaves.

Now it falls to former County Commissioner Phyllis Busansky, who defeated Johnson in his bid for re-election, to repair the breakdowns that made Hillsborough's election a statewide joke.

"I'm a fixer," Busansky said Thursday evening. "One of the things I like doing best is fixing things, and (the office) needs to be fixed."

She does not, however, have a multipoint plan for what to address first. Rather, she said she will take a week or so to rest, then set some priorities and assess what she finds when she takes office in January.

"I've got to get there," she said. "It's been a very closed place, and it's been hard to know what's been happening."

Still, Busansky said an emphasis on sound leadership, good training and rigorous testing could come in handy.

"I just really do believe that systems work because you put teams together and give them good leadership," she said. "It's got to be more than just a technical system."

Johnson's exasperation with Premier this week came in sharp contrast to the warm embrace he gave the company earlier this year.

Premier had the latest, most up-to-date and most state-of-the-art system available, Johnson said on Feb. 20, moments before county commissioners voted to pay $5.8-million for the system.

Premier's bid was the third highest of four, but cost accounted for half the selection criteria. The other half considered the company's responsiveness, how its system met specifications, and experience.

That day, Johnson said Premier's optical scan technology made for remarkably fast voting.

Johnson said his office would use the same care in deciding how to transfer data on Election Day as it did in picking Premier. He described a process that proceeded along a carefully planned time line, neither rushing nor dawdling.

But by then, Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning had already criticized Hillsborough for taking longer than any county in the state to buy a state-mandated optical scan voting system.

And when a citizen member of Johnson's ranking committee asked for another week to evaluate the proposals, she said she was told the committee needed to render a decision that day.

"We were given under two weeks, I would say maybe about 10 days, to review hundreds of pages of material," said Rebecca Steele, an attorney and the American Civil Liberties Union's regional director for west central Florida.

"To me, that was not enough time to adequately assess the material and make an informed ranking of the systems, so I abstained from voting," said Steele, who had been traveling for work and had a court date in the days before the committee met.

This week, Premier's system got swamped when elections officials tried to upload ballot data from optical scanners used for early voting. The files were so big the computer timed-out the procedure, severing the connection before the transfer ended.

Now Premier plans to rework its computer coding and wants to have a cooperative relationship with Hillsborough County that addresses the county's needs.

"We will definitely be bringing in new software for testing that will be designed to address the time-out conditions," company spokesman Chris Riggall said.

Asked whether she thought this week's breakdown was more a problem of the vendor or the Supervisor of Elections staff, Busansky said, "I don't know, honestly."

She said she did wonder how the office could have received an e-mail from Premier in September advising it not to overload the memory cards with general election data and not act on it.

But unlike Johnson, she could not say whether she is ready to consider switching vendors.

"At this point, I would not be able to make that kind of decision," she said.

Times staff writers Bill Varian, Michael Van Sickler and Janet Zink contributed to this report.

Hillsborough election fixes up to Busansky 11/07/08 [Last modified: Sunday, November 9, 2008 11:29am]

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