Florida county loses election data

Miami-Dade's records from 2002 primary lost, citizens group audit shows

July 29, 2004|By Bob Mahlburg | Bob Mahlburg,ORLANDO SENTINEL

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - In the latest blow to Florida's increasingly embattled election system, state and local officials scrambled yesterday to try to salvage election records wiped out during a computer crash in the state's biggest county.

Secretary of State Glenda Hood sent an investigator to Miami-Dade County, and county election officials brought in a university consultant to try to figure out what went wrong after published reports yesterday detailed a citizens group audit that said records of the 2002 Democratic primary vote for governor vanished last year.

Coming just months before the 2004 presidential vote, the incident raised new fears among Republicans and Democrats alike about the electronic voting systems used in 15 counties with more than half of the state's population.

Jill Bratina, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jeb Bush, who oversees Hood's elections office, called the records loss "a great concern," but stressed that the election records were lost from a county computer where they had been transferred, not from voting machines.

"It has nothing to do with the voting equipment," Bratina said. "They'd already been taken off of the voting system."

But others disagreed, saying that older voting systems automatically keep multiple backups of the original data - often in the form of paper ballots - so records are not lost.

"With my more old-fashioned optical data system, I don't have to worry about that," said Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho. "We would still have the data - something that is not possible with electronic voting. This gives ammunition to people complaining about the electronic voting system."

Sancho has drawn some criticism for questioning the reliability of new voting technology. Orange County Supervisor Bill Cowles last week criticized Sancho for what he called "unwarranted attacks" on touch-screen technology, and Hood said he was "eroding voter confidence."

The problems with missing Miami voting data were detailed in an audit by the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition, a citizens group that sought information on the tight 2002 governor's primary between Democratic candidates Janet Reno and Bill McBride. The audit findings were first reported yesterday by The New York Times and the Miami Herald.

"The audit trail is extremely important because it's like having the black box on an airplane," said Sandy Wayland of the group. "The fact they have these crashes and lose all the data on elections and no one can go back and see what happened is very upsetting."

Bratina said it's "premature to say" if the missing records amount to a violation of state law, which requires them to be maintained. But she said two more investigators are being sent to Miami on Thursday and Hood's office is checking with other counties to make sure they follow the law.

"If people are not preserving records, it's of great concern," Bratina said.

Miami-Dade County elections officials worked with computer experts yesterday to recover some missing data, but much is still missing, said Seth Kaplan, a spokesman for Elections Supervisor Constance Kaplan. He, like state officials, expressed confidence that the 2004 election will be accurate and said the county has since begun daily tape backups.

The ACLU has called for an independent audit of voting equipment to make sure it works properly and a paper trail in case a recount is needed.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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