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Hillsborough struggles to count votes

Employees at the Hillsborough elections office work Wednesday to tabulate votes after malfunctioning machines on election night interrupted the count.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Employees at the Hillsborough elections office work Wednesday to tabulate votes after malfunctioning machines on election night interrupted the count.

TAMPA — About 80,000 ballots cast during early voting in the general election in Hillsborough County remained uncounted on Wednesday due to technical difficulties.

Plans called for a team of 40 people on the supervisor of elections staff to refeed the ballots by hand into optical scan machines today.

One of the elections that hangs in the balance is the fight between Democrat Phyllis Busansky and Republican incumbent Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson. Late Wednesday, Johnson led Busansky by fewer than 5,000 votes.

Johnson referred questions about the tabulation to the county's canvassing board, which is overseeing the vote count because Johnson is a candidate.

But he and other elections officials blamed the problem on Premier Election Solutions, the company that has a $5.8-million contract with the county to provide elections hardware and software.

"The system is a failure," said County Judge James Dominguez, chairman of the canvassing board. Johnson, he said, "was not delivered the product that he ordered and that he paid for."

Premier acknowledged that the sheer volume of data being transferred from ballot-scanners overwhelmed the computer server that does the tabulation.

That problem manifested itself in two ways, said Chris Riggall, the company's director of communications.

Sometimes, the server posted an error message saying data had not been uploaded even though it had.

In other cases, huge data files took so long to load that the server timed the transfer out and disconnected before the upload was complete.

"Clearly the time-out issue is one that generated those delays, and that's on us," Riggall said.

The company did tell all its Florida clients several weeks before the election to load "no more than a few thousand" ballots on any one machine's memory card, Riggall said.

But in Hillsborough, some memory cards were loaded with 10,000 ballots or even more.

Early Wednesday, canvassing board members hoped Premier could find a way to upload information from scanners. But Riggall said that would require re-writing computer code — which would invalidate the state's certification for the system.

So untabulated early voting ballots will have to be rescanned by hand so the data can be sent to the server in smaller batches.

Premier is based in Allen, Texas, and is a wholly owned subsidiary of Diebold, a publicly traded company with annual sales of more than $2.9-billion.

Premier has a third of the voting technology market. Its clients include more than 2,000 communities in 33 states, including two dozen counties in Florida.

Elections officials in Monroe and Sarasota said that on Tuesday night that they faced minor snags loading data from one part of Premier's system to another.

Neither reported having a problem like Hillsborough's.

In Monroe County, for example, some data uploads were unusually slow, but the ballot information eventually went through, said Assistant Supervisor of Elections Joyce Griffin.

In Brevard, some early voting scanners were loaded up with more than 11,000 ballots, said Duwayne Lundgren, assistant supervisor for elections services. There was no problem uploading those votes, he said.

One possible reason: It was a single-sheet ballot. Hillsborough's ballots were two sheets.

About 512,000 Hillsborough County voters cast ballots in the general election.

The vote count shut down about 3:30 a.m. Wednesday. At that point, about 6,000 absentee votes and more than half of the 146,332 early votes remained uncounted. Uncounted votes also came from two polling sites — New Mount Zion Baptist Church and Temple Terrace Presbyterian Church — where scanning machines failed.

The counting resumed Wednesday around noon, starting with the absentee ballots. Elections staff members hand-fed ballots from the two polling sites into scanners.

It was unclear how long it would take to count the remaining ballots today.

"It's a labor intensive job," said Kathy Harris, Johnson's general counsel and chief of staff.

But in a statement issued late Wednesday, Johnson said the votes would by tallied, certified and submitted to Florida's Division of Elections before the state's deadline of noon Saturday.

Secretary of State Kurt Browning said that to his knowledge Hillsborough is the only county encountering difficulties. Still, he said, the state needs to get to the point where voting systems "are performing the way that these counties have contracted them to work."

Browning said one of his top 2009 legislative priorities is to make sure that the three main voting equipment vendors are producing "first-rate products."

The Hillsborough County Commission approved the purchase of Premier's voting system in February. It was recommended by Johnson after a selection committee composed of elections staffers, a county administrator and a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union reviewed bids from four companies. Among other things, they considered price and experience.

Late last year, Browning expressed concern about Hillsborough trailing all other counties in picking an optical scan system, leaving little time to train poll workers and voters.

A different problem delayed vote counting in Hillsborough County during the August primary election.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Michael Van Sickler, Justin George and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Hillsborough struggles to count votes 11/05/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 7, 2008 8:36pm]
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