Florida county e-voting system deal nixed

Elections officials in Leon County, Fla., are scrambling to find a way to comply with state and federal voting laws now that the vendor from which they had planned to buy handicapped-accessible optical scan election equipment is walking away from the deal.

The Leon County Commission last month voted to scrap its investment in 160 AccuVote optical-scan voting machines from Diebold Election Systems and had planned to swap in new devices from Election Systems & Software Inc. (ES&S)

Leon County intended to use ES&S's AutoMark optical scan gear to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and Florida election laws. According to HAVA, by this month, every precinct must have a touch-screen or specially equipped optical-scan device for handicapped access. The ES&S AutoMark system has an audio component that lets the blind vote.

However, in an interview with Computerworld, Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho said that Omaha-based ES&S, for reasons that are unclear, decided not to go through with what would have been a US$1.8 million deal. That decision has forced election officials to search for another way to meet the HAVA compliance deadline. If the county remains a Diebold customer, it will have to purchase that vendor's touch-screen e-voting systems to comply with the handicapped accessibility laws. That is something Sancho has been reluctant to do because of concerns that the touch-screen machines lack the necessary security and don't create paper receipts for voters. Leon County had planned to have paper-receipt verified voting systems in every precinct in time for the fall elections.

Standardizing on ES&S would have simplified things, allowing for one set of devices and a single data format for tallying votes. Sancho said Diebold won't allow its products to be used with any other vendor's gear because that would violate copyright laws protecting its proprietary technology. What's next for the county is uncertain.

"At this point, it's not clear what we'll do," said Sancho, who has been talking with lawyers about the county's options. "I've got two major entities in the elections business that simply don't have the time to deal with Leon County."