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F.C. Election Chief Says Problem With Voting Machines Identified a Year Ago

Claims Complaint To Maker in ’05 Went Unheeded

A glitch on all voting machines in the City of Falls Church, as well as those in Alexandria and Charlottesville, will keep the full name of U.S. Senate candidate James Webb from appearing on all ballot summary pages on Nov. 7.

 

While remedies in the form of ample signage informing voters of the problem, and assuring them that their votes will still be counted, are being readied, Falls Church’s chief election official of many years told the News-Press yesterday that this is not a new problem. It was known a year ago and complained about then with no results.

Debbie Taylor, the City’s Voter Registrar, said the problem first surfaced when the City used new the voting machines, manufactured by Hart InterCivic, for the first time in the November 2005 general election.

 “I complained to the manufacturer then,” Taylor told the News-Press, “They told me they’d work on it and will get a fix, but nothing was actually done.”

When Webb campaign officials learned of the problem this month and went public with it, Hart InterCivic officials said they’d have the problem corrected within a year. They did not acknowledge the problem had first been identified a full year ago, with no resulting action.

Contacted by the News-Press Tuesday, a spokesman for Hart InterCivic in Austin, Texas, when asked about the problem said abruptly, “There isn’t a problem.”

She declined further comment and e-mailed a statement from Phillip Braithwaite, vice president of InterCivic.

The statement acknowledged that “the Hart Voting System version 3.1, which is currently certified for use in Virginia, has a font-size limitation only on the summary screen that causes longer names to truncate.”

The spokesman subsequently did not return follow-up calls from the News-Press.

Taylor said that the problem exists for all 23 voting machines purchased by the City of Falls Church in 2005 at a cost of $177,228, inclusive of training and project management consultations.

She said that a member of the City’s Election Board agreed to hand-produce signs that will appear at all the City’s five polling locations and in all the voting booths on Nov. 7 explaining the situation, aimed at reassuring voters. The signs are also available for those voting absentee at City Hall.

The machines, named by their manufacturer “e-Slates,” are direct recording electronic devices that have no paper trail.

 “There’s not a single voting machine in Virginia now that has a paper trail,” Taylor said. A new law enacted by the Virginia legislature mandated all local jurisdictions to choose from among a limited number of options for new machines, none with paper trails. “Only a change in Virginia law will provide for a paper trail. The machines can be retrofitted to provide it, but it needs to be mandated by the legislature first,” she said.

News of unattended flaws in new electronic machines makes those election observers already nervous about lack of paper trails even more jittery.

Responding to the state law requiring selection of a new brand of machine, Falls Church election officials were compelled to abandon “optical scanner” machines required only a few years before. Ironically, officials reviewing the controversies surrounding “hanging chads” and other election irregularities in Florida in 2000 concluded that “optical scanner” machines, which do provide a paper trail, were the most accurate of all the models they reviewed.

 Still, Falls Church officials narrowed their options to two, one used in Alexandria (which was selected) and the other used in Arlington and Fairfax Counties. A bi-partisan review group was selected to evaluate the machines from the standpoint of election officials, party leaders, the elderly and the disabled, and the choice was made in 2004.

In Virginia, the “e-Slate” machines were selected by only the City of Falls Church and the independent cities of Alexandria and Charlottesville. Aside from the “glitch,” Taylor said the new machines are very effective. But the problem on the summary page of the ballots, which cuts off half the name of U.S. Senate candidate Jim Webb, appears the same on all the machines in all the jurisdictions that use it.

Taylor said that it is due to Virginia election law that specifies ballots shall be presented to the voters in a large font size making them more readable.

The “e-Slate” machines are simply not equipped to accommodate the larger font and get everything onto their summary pages.

But the problem was evident, and reported by election officials here, the first time the machines were used in the City of Falls Church the statewide election of November 2005.

In the written statement provided from Hart InterCivic’s Braithwaite, he reported that his company “has applied to the Commonwealth of Virginia for certification of a system version upgrade of existing equipment. The certification process is step by step and methodical, followed by a detailed installation process of new firmware on each previous piece of equipment,” followed by training of election officials in the upgrade.

He added that while this will not be completed in time for the Nov. 7 election this year, “Hart InterCivic does intend to install the newer system version before the next major election in 2007, assuming certification from the Commonwealth.”

What the statement does not say is when the company’s application for certification was made, and if it was not made a year ago, when Falls Church officials identified the problem and complained, why not.

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