Early Voting Starts Monday Yo

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When the Miami-Dade County Elections Department announced that it would put its touch-screen electronic voting machines through a "rigorous test" today, I pictured a real-life cast of traditionally disenfranchised voters: A self-proclaimed Luddite; someone with only hooks for hands; a couple of elderly folks with a record of butterfly ballots; blindfolded and ear-plugged experts in American Sign Language and Braille; an ex-felon who got a gubernatorial pardon; dyslexics — all forced to travel from the door to the voting booth in wheelchairs. The event, I assumed, would be orchestrated by poll workers plucked at random from the County's list of volunteers. Unfortunately, that's not what the County had in mind. (For those who would like to hone their voting technique, however, a demo of the Election Systems & Software iVotronic may be found here.

Instead the Election Department gave its employees instructions for who to vote for in a fake election. Knowing ahead of time that 50 employees were told to vote for, say, Martha Washington, they will measure whether the machines tallied 50 votes in her name at the end of the day. They will also run mock absentee ballots through the optical scanning machine. By 9 a.m. this morning, the iVotronics were lined up in the Election Department's Doral warehouse. Nearby, behind yellow police tape that read, "No Campaigning Beyond this Point," thousands of disassembled voting machines were stacked in numbered piles, ready for transportation to polling stations across the county. In massive chain link cages, Post Office bins filled with absentee ballots lined the shelves.

Employees scrutinized their lists of predetermined votes and poked at screens while severe clipboard-huggers from Audit and Management Services pushed up their glasses and penciled in checkmarks on their evaluations. A whiteboard on the wall read, "Permanent staff: don't forget cyber security training." Under each voting machine, a printer spewed out receipts that record the time of each vote and the number of votes cast for each candidate, randomized so that the time a voter entered the poll can't be traced to who he voted for. Other employees sat in pairs at tables labeled "Quality Assurance," carefully folding the printed receipts from the voting machines into manila envelopes.

The County purchased their 7200 ES&S iVotronics for $24.5 million in 2002, after the Florida legislature decertified punch-card machines in the wake of the 2000 presidential campaign. The machines made their disastrous debut at the September 2002 gubernatorial primary, where technical glitches caused polls to open late and election results for the Democratic primary took a full week to tally. In a May 2003 evaluation, the County Inspector General described the purchase of the iVotronics as "a bad business decision." Many of the iVotronic mishaps — as well as some background on the lobbyists who brought them here -- are well-documented in "Rage Against the Machines," a 2004 New Times article by Rebecca Wakefield.

County Elections Supervisor Lester Sola, a model bureaucrat in a neat suit, rimless glasses, and a diagonally striped tie, was on hand to assure visiting reporters that "Miami-Dade County is probably the best prepared that we've ever been." On election day, he continued, "Voters only have to worry about coming out to vote, not if the equipment will work. We are sure that the equipment will work." For this election, there will be one technical staff member on call for every five precincts, although Sola explained that "it's not like your home computer, where if it crashes you lose track of the vote." (Verified Voting offers a thorough explanation about how the iVotronic works.)

But Sola kept mum about a May 2005 memorandum in which he advised the county to switch to optical scanners and paper ballots -- not only because voters were losing confidence in the touch screen machines, but because setting up the iVotronics had quadrupled Election Day labor costs. -Emily Witt

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