Fairfax Voting Machines A 'Failure'

GOP Says County Was Unprepared, Urges State Control


By David Cho

Washington Post Staff Writer

Saturday, January 10, 2004; Page B01


New touch-screen voting machines used in Fairfax County's local elections in November were a "failure," and county electoral officials were unprepared to deal with the equipment's problems, according to a county GOP committee report released yesterday.


In their report, Republican officials urged the county to investigate the "poor performance" of the machines, and they recommended state regulations that would require localities with the new equipment to follow stringent procedures.


"Neither the Fairfax County Electoral Board, nor the new voting machines was ready for Election Day," the report said. "The new touch screen machines were a technological and procedural failure."


Several Democratic and Republican state legislators are drafting bills aimed at avoiding further problems with the machines, in Fairfax and elsewhere. One measure would require the touch-screen devices to meet more rigorous security standards in order to be certified by the state. Another would require localities to attach printers to the machines and provide voters with paper records of their ballots.


"Our solutions not only need to work, but they need to work to give the citizenry confidence in the voting system," said state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax).


Margaret K. Luca, secretary of the county Board of Elections, disputed the GOP committee's report, calling it inaccurate.


"It was about as good as an Election Day as we've ever had," Luca said. Her staff "bent over backwards" to prepare for the election and held numerous demonstrations and seminars for the public beforehand.


"I feel so hurt that anyone would say we were not prepared; I mean, we were so well prepared," Luca said. She said that every technical problem cited in the report was fixed in the weeks after the election.


"We anticipate having a perfect election in February," she said. The Virginia Democratic presidential primary will be held Feb. 10.


Fairfax purchased nearly 1,000 touch-screen voting machines last year from Advanced Voting Solutions of Frisco, Tex., for $3.5 million. The devices, which resemble laptop computers without keyboards, were used countywide for the first time in November.


Fairfax officials had promised that their machinery would perform well, citing a battery of tests. They also predicted that the system would greatly speed up the reporting of results. Instead, the new machines produced one of the slowest vote counts in recent history as precinct workers struggled to transmit results electronically. The problems mirrored many of those experienced by Montgomery County when it switched to touch-screen machines in 2002.


The Republican report cited dozens of e-mails and letters from precinct workers and voters who described problems such as machines that repeatedly crashed, screens that balked at registering votes and delays in tallying votes.


A furor also erupted in Fairfax when Luca ordered that 10 machines that had crashed at the polls be taken to the county government center for repairs -- a move Republicans called illegal. At the time, the county had no policy for dealing with machines that could not be repaired on site.


That controversy prompted the GOP investigation and yesterday's report.


"The laws have not kept pace with the technology, and nobody is at fault for that. It just happens," said Christopher T. Craig, a lawyer for the county GOP committee and a co-author of the study.


"There's enough questions about" the Fairfax elections, said Del. J. Chapman Petersen (D-Fairfax). "It seems from my perspective that there's definitely room for a more standardized procedure. In the precincts in my district, machines broke down, lines were long . . . but a primary issue for me is certainly security."


Petersen said he would introduce a bill requiring the state Board of Elections to better address security issues.


Maintaining voter confidence in the machines should be the principal goal of any new regulations, Cuccinelli said.


"Fairfax County did not have sufficient procedures in place by any stretch of the imagination to deal with this," he said.


2004 The Washington Post Company



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