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Despite Chicago glitches, officials here confident in voting machines

Allegheny County chose same manufacturer


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

By Jerome L. Sherman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


A week ago, Chicago held its first election using computerized voting machines built by Sequoia Voting Systems, a California company that also is selling equipment to Allegheny County.


As of yesterday, Chicago and surrounding Cook County still hadn't finished counting votes.


Officials there were threatening to withhold millions of dollars from Sequoia until they have a chance to assess what went wrong last Tuesday, when many machines malfunctioned and hundreds of precincts failed to transmit their results to downtown offices.


"At this point, we think some of the glitches could have been caused by programming problems," said Scott Burnham, a spokesman for the Cook County clerk. "We will review this election from top to bottom."


Chicago and Cook County used complex dual voting systems, with touch-screen units resembling ATMs and optical scanners that read fill-in-the-bubble paper ballots. Allegheny County is buying the AVC Advantage, an older electronic model that has been used for years in many parts of the country, including Montgomery County, Pa.


"It has performed well. We're confident it's going to perform well here," said Kevin Evanto, spokesman for Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato.


A federal law is forcing local governments across the country to upgrade their voting equipment this year. Last month, Allegheny County agreed to a $11.8 million deal with Sequoia for 2,800 AVC Advantage machines to replace its 40-year-old lever machines.


Two contracts worth more than $50 million made Chicago and Cook County into Sequoia's biggest customers.


Combined, the two jurisdictions have almost 5,000 voting precincts and more than 25,000 poll workers. In contrast, Allegheny County has just over 1,300 voting sites.


Poll workers in Chicago and its suburbs all received training on the new equipment. Yet the two new types of machines overwhelmed the workers, who were accustomed to punch-card machines that had been in use for decades.


Most mishaps came at the end of the night, when poll workers tried to transfer results from the electronic machines to tabulators -- small units that compile vote totals and transmit the results to election officials.


Of Chicago's 2,604 precincts, 365 didn't send in their results on Election Night, according to Tom Leach, a spokesman for the city's elections board. As many as half of suburban Cook County's 2,386 precincts failed to submit theirs.


Poll workers also may have damaged some voting machine memory cards when they incorrectly inserted them into tabulators, he said. In Chicago, officials had to recount some optical scan ballots, and they still need to check paper trails on a few touch-screen machines that recorded "zero" votes. Mr. Leach said his office still hadn't finished counting votes in 41 precincts.


Both he and Mr. Burnham said no votes had been lost. [Ed. How would they know?]


On past election nights, officials often had 90 percent of the results within an hour of the polls closing. They were expecting a somewhat slower process in last week's primary.


"Overall, our equipment performed well," said Michelle Shafer, a Sequoia spokeswoman. "Yes, there were technical issues. But there were no widespread system malfunctions. [Ed. Define this term. The description above sounds widespread] We're sure that things will be much improved for November."


The ongoing counting has delayed results for several local referendums and a close race for a GOP nomination for the Cook County Board of Commissioners.


Mr. Leach said Chicago's three election commissioners today would decide whether to continue making payments on their contract with Sequoia. They are planning to bring in their own computer expert to evaluate the machines.


Mr. Leach and Mr. Burnham said they are working with Sequoia to identify problems with the equipment and training procedures.


Ms. Shafer said Chicago and Cook County are unique because of their dual voting systems. That arrangement allows voters who prefer paper to use optical scanners, while voters with disabilities can more easily use the touch-screen units, satisfying a federal requirement.


Allegheny County officials have decided to buy only one model to simplify the voting process.


They also decided to use the Advantage, a "full-face" machine that lets the voter see the entire ballot at once.


The county's deal with Sequoia allows it to buy new equipment for $2.4 million in about two years.


"We didn't want to be guinea pigs," Mr. Evanto said.

(Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1183. )


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