WASHINGTON - Last August, Election Systems & Software sent Florida election officials a letter informing them of a glitch in their electronic voting equipment -- a problem that should be fixed before Election Day in November "to avoid any potential issues at the polls."
Instead, the problem was ignored, said Sam Hirsch, a lawyer for Democratic congressional candidate Christine Jennings, who has petitioned the court and the Congress for a new election in Katherine Harris's old district in Sarasota.
Kathy Dent, Sarasota Supervisor of Elections, confirmed in a phone interview today that the manufacturer's recommendation was disregarded, and no action taken: "No one in the State of Florida updated" the equipment after receiving the letter, she said, "and that's because it was too close to the election. It was a state decision that it was too late to make changes."
Either 18,000 voters who showed up at the polls in Jennings's stronghold in Sarasota County then decided to skip over the hotly contested congressional race -- or machines there malfunctioned, as per widespread reports from voters who said they could not get the machines to register any vote in that one race. The official tally showed Republican Vern Buchanan winning by 369 votes, and he has been provisionally seated in Congress.
"The problem they describe" in the letter from ES&S "matches the reports we got from voters," Hirsch said. "The manufacturer admits there's a problem and that it needs to be fixed - and then it never is?"
Dent maintains that the problem cited in the letter had nothing to do with the 15 percent undervote in that one race. "Those were reports after the fact," she said of the voter complaints. But "I had dozens of people say they were able to go back" and make a selection in the race. She attributes the undervote to "partly voter intent and partly the location of the race on the ballot."
The race made Jennings a national poster girl for the perils of electronic voting, cited even by the state's new Republican governor, Charlie Crist, who wants to prevent such problems in the future by converting Florida's voting machines so that they produce a paper trail.
But lawyers for Jennings had not even seen the letter from ES&S until recently; it was not provided to them by election officials as it should have been under discovery motions in the case, Hirsch said. Instead, the legal team came across the document on a North Carolina-based website on election reform.
Sarasota County election officials clearly had seen the letter, though, because they referred to it in a series of emails that were among the thousands of pages of documents that were provided to Jennings's legal team. "It wasn't clear until we saw the letter what the emails were about," Hirsch said.
Dated August 15, 2006, the letter from ES&S says, "It has come to our attention after a number of inquiries...that some of your screens are exhibiting slow response times...We have determined that the delayed response time is a result of a smoothing filter that was added...In some cases, the time lapse on these consistent reads is beyond the normal time a voter would expect."
"The improvement will require an update to the firmware, and state-level certification," in advance of the general election in November, the letter said. Meanwhile, for early voting, "In order to avoid any potential issues at the polls...it is our recommendation that you train your poll workers and voters to expect this slightly delayed response time...We have included with this mailing a sample voting booth instruction sign for your review and use."
The poster advised voters that it might be necessary to hold their selection on the touch screen for several seconds in order to register a response.
But Dent said she decided against using the posters "because we already had instructions on voting on the touch screens" displayed in the voting booths, "and we hadn't had that problem."
Emails from Dent dated August 24 indicate that she not only decided against using the signs warning voters that there might be a delayed response - but instead used signs giving the opposite message: "Touch Screen Voting, Easy as 1, 2, 3."
"I need input from you all about whether we place this poster" on the possibility of a delayed response "in each booth at this stage of the game," Dent wrote in an email to various co-workers. "Since poll worker training is almost over, we will not be able to go back and talk about this with them."
A colleague named Karen Crete answered Dent that she thought that was a bad idea because there were two posters in each voting booth already. "If we insert a third poster inside the terminal, this could be information overload and very busy for the voter."
Dent thanked her for the input: "Good rationale," she answered. "This is why I want more minds on this than just mine."