Flashbacks Of Florida 2000 As Voting Machines Age

Mar 10, 2016
Originally published on March 11, 2016 9:46 am

When Florida voters go to vote on March 15, the state's voting machines may once again be in the spotlight.

Back in 2000, the nation's most spectacular elections meltdown took place in Florida thanks to the infamous paper butterfly ballots, ancient voting machines and poorly trained poll workers. The ensuing chaos led to a massive recount, a Supreme Court battle and a narrow victory for George W. Bush.

Between the international scrutiny and federal funds, most Florida counties bought new voting machines after that. But almost 16 years later, this generation of machines is nearing the end of its life.

"We don't expect our laptops or our desktops to last a decade, and that's the kind of consumer electronics and technology that these machines are using," says Christopher Famighetti of New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, who worked on a report about the state of voting machines nationwide.

In Polk County, Fla., poll workers in training fumble with clunky beige machines, among the oldest in the state. Like teachers grading Scantron tests, they feed paper ballots into the equipment. Some 280,000 voters are expected to head to the polls in this part of central Florida.

Longtime poll worker William Carroway calls optical scan machines "reliable."

"People like the idea that they actually put their ballot in," he says. "They want to know their ballot was counted. They don't see that with the touch screen."

The machines scan ballots with an infrared reader, and the results are transmitted to the state capital old-school — through a dial-up modem.

It's 1990s technology that the county first used, ironically, during the 2000 election. Unlike other parts of the state, Polk County didn't suffer any voting meltdowns that year.

While state and federal elections experts agree optical scan units are reliable, the issue that arises is age: Problems crop up when they hit the 10-year mark. This year, 43 states will be using machines that are at least that old, according to the Brennan Center report.

Optical scan units are prone to especially serious problems, "things like motherboard failures, paper jams, the rollers that pull paper ballots into the machines can dry up over time," said Famighetti.

One Florida county had to buy parts off eBay because the manufacturer no longer made them. Famighetti estimates the cost of new voting machines across the country could exceed $1 billion, a tab states and counties would have to pay themselves.

But it's not just about the money, argues Polk County's Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards.

"This equipment is accurate. The poll workers enjoy working with it, and our voters feel very comfortable with the equipment," Edwards says.

The latest-model optical scan units take a digital photo of each ballot that can be saved to a flash drive. Edwards questions the utility of this technology update.

Her philosophy on updating the county's equipment? Don't worry.

"If every piece of this equipment died on Election Day, we have every single ballot and we know where it is and we know how to count those," Edwards says. "It may take awhile, but we're very comfortable to be able to rely on those easy-to-read ballots."

This scenario is unlikely, Famighetti says. He stresses that "nobody we spoke with said that all the machines are going to break down at once."

But the machines will break down sooner or later, and Famighetti says state and local governments will eventually need to find the money to replace them.

Meanwhile, Edwards says it will likely be at least two to four years before Polk County voters will slide their ballots through new machines. She is looking ahead to next week's primary.

"If we weren't confident, we wouldn't be doing it this way," says Edwards. "This is much too important. You can't put a price tag on democracy."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So as you know, we spend a lot of time talking about who people vote for. Well, now let's talk about how people vote. Back in 2000, the nation's most spectacular elections meltdown took place in Florida. The state's infamous paper butterfly ballots led to a massive recount, a Supreme Court battle and a narrow victory for George W. Bush. Most Florida counties bought new voting machines after that. But now experts warn of Election Day chaos if counties don't upgrade that equipment. Renata Sago from member station WMFE reports.

RENATA SAGO, BYLINE: On the second floor of the Polk County elections office, poll workers in training fumble with clunky, beige machines.

WILLIAM CARROWAY: Are you good?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes.

CARROWAY: See the weight of it. It's not too bad.

SAGO: Like teachers grading those Scantron tests, the poll workers feed paper ballots with the letter A into the equipment.

CARROWAY: Everybody get A in?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

CARROWAY: That's your first voter.

SAGO: Longtime poll workers like William Carroway expect to help more than 280,000 Central Florida voters slide their ballots through these optical scan units next week. That data's then transmitted old school through a dial-up modem.

CARROWAY: It's reliable.

SAGO: The technology for the units is from the '90s. Polk County first used it, ironically, during the 2000 presidential election and didn't suffer any of the voting meltdowns other Florida counties did that year. Carroway says the 16-year-old machines have endured better than the fancy touchscreen technology other states are using.

CARROWAY: People like the idea that they actually put their ballot in. They want to know that ballot was counted. They don't see that with the touchscreen.

SAGO: Now, state and federal elections experts agree optical scan units are reliable. But problems crop up when they hit the 10-year mark. According to a report from New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, that's the age of many voting machines today.

CHRISTOPHER FAMAGHETTI: We don't expect our laptops or our desktops to last a decade. And, you know, that's the kind of consumer electronics and technology that these machines are using.

SAGO: Researcher Christopher Famaghetti says that this year, 43 states will be using machines that are at least a decade old, and optical scan units in particular have serious problems.

FAMAGHETTI: Things like motherboard failures, paper jams, the rollers that pull paper ballots into the machines can dry up over time.

SAGO: One Florida county had to buy parts off eBay because the manufacturer no longer made them. Famaghetti estimates the cost of new voting machines across the country could exceed $1 billion, and that's a tab counties will likely have to pay. But it's not just about the money, says Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards.

LORI EDWARDS: This equipment is accurate, the poll workers enjoy working with it and our voters feel very comfortable with the equipment.

SAGO: The latest model optical scan units take a digital photo of each ballot that can be saved to a flash drive. Edwards questions whether the new technology is even worth it. Her philosophy is if it ain't broke, don't fix it. And if it is broke, don't worry.

EDWARDS: If every piece of this equipment died on Election Day, we have every single ballot and we know where it is and we know how to count those. It might take a while, but we're very comfortable to be able to rely on those easy-to-read ballots.

SAGO: Meanwhile, Edwards is looking ahead to next week's primary. She says it won't be until the 2018 or 2020 election when Polk County voters will slide their ballots through new machines.

EDWARDS: If we weren't confident, we wouldn't be doing it this way. This is much too important. You can't put a price tag on democracy.

SAGO: For NPR News, I'm Renata Sago in Polk County, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.