By RICHARD WHITT
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 10/13/05
Software installed to improve security in Georgia's new touch-screen
voting machines has significantly slowed the process of counting
ballots - and it might not get much faster for next month's municipal
elections or statewide and U.S. House elections in 2006.
Although election officials believe adjustments could yet improve the
speed, some local officials aren't so sure.
"We have actually taken steps backward," says Gwinnett Election
Supervisor Lynn Ledford. "We may go from five or six hours [counting
votes] to maybe getting results the next day."
Several metro Atlanta counties have experienced the slowdown in local
Last month, it took Cobb County more than four hours to count votes
for a sales tax referendum - an election in which one in 10 eligible
voters cast ballots and fewer than half of the county's voting
machines were in use.
In June, Fulton County election officials didn't finish counting votes
on the Sandy Springs referendum until nearly midnight.
And in Coweta County, counting ballots in a June special election went
so slowly that election officials first thought something was wrong
with the system.
Led by Secretary of State Cathy Cox, Georgia election officials began
considering touch-screen voting following the debacle of the 2000
presidential election in Florida.
"The fact we now have a slight delay over what we had two years ago
is, I think, a worthy trade-off for enhanced security," Cox says.
Expect long nights
Cox, who is running for governor, says county election officials are
sharing information on how to speed up the process, and they hope
counting will go faster as election workers become more familiar with
the the new system.
But some local election officials worry that a general election
requiring all of their voting machines will be excruciatingly slow,
particularly in larger counties.
All of this is bad news for candidates waiting for results at parties
or people watching TV or scouring the Internet for returns on election
"The balloons won't fall ... I'd miss that," says Miranda Dillard, a
registered voter and a music teacher at Paideia School in Atlanta. "I
want votes to be counted correctly - we don't want a repeat of Florida
- but there ought to be a balance between security and speed so we can
enjoy the excitement of election night."
30 seconds per ballot
The problem can be traced to new security software, given to Georgia
by Diebold Elections Systems of Ohio, which has a $54 million contract
to supply the state with the touch-screen machines.
The software was added to all voting machines last spring. It encrypts
the transmission of election data from precincts to county election
headquarters, making electronic vote tampering, internally or
externally, more difficult.
Votes from machines are now coded onto a data card. Then, those cards
have to be decoded and counted by a computer before the vote is
Before the new security measures, computers decoded the data cards
almost instantly. Now, it takes about 30 seconds to process each data
card - and keep in mind, there are about 2,000 data cards used in Cobb
All of this explains why Sandy Springs residents waited - and waited -
for results on that new city's incorporation vote.
"It was just a shocker for us to have that type of delay in June,"
says Fulton County's elections chief Cynthia Welch, who watched the
Speed or security?
Cox admits it's a balancing act between speed and security.
"I'm sure you will talk to people in this state who think we can never
have too much security," she says. "Certainly I think this enhancement
was a good thing for our machines."
Even though there hasn't been a recorded incident of fraud involving
the system, some people simply don't trust it.
Since touch-screen voting debuted, Cox has faced steady criticism from
a small but vocal group of Georgians who say the system is vulnerable
to manipulation. And several respected computer security experts have
suggested the machines' software can be tampered with to change the
outcome of elections.
To pacify uneasy voters, the state is considering retrofitting the
machines with printers so voters could double-check their on-screen
choices. Creating a paper trail could slow the vote count even more =97
if those ballots were used in the official count, says Cox's spokesman
Georgia is the only state that uses the Diebold machines in every
Some counties and cities in other states that use Diebold machines
have the enhanced security system, but others do not, says David Bear,
a spokesman for Diebold.
Maryland, Ohio, Mississippi and Utah are phasing in Diebold
touch-screen machines. Computer consultants in Maryland first raised
security concerns, resulting in the new software.
Linda Lamone, Maryland's administrator of elections, says she's
unaware of any complaints of slow vote counts during statewide
elections in 2004.
In the meantime, in Georgia, the debate over speed and security
Cox remains confident
Beth Kish, Cobb County's elections supervisor, says glitches were
expected because of the new security software.
But, she warned we shouldn't expect quick counts in next month's
"Candidates are going be frustrated," she says. "When we had optical
scanners we were done in an hour or an hour-and-a-half. That will not
happen again. It just won't happen."
Looking forward to next year's governor's race, Cox expects to know
the outcome before midnight on election night.
"I don't think anybody is telling you it's going to be the next day,"
says Cox. "We are so far away from the nightmarish days of waiting for
those punch cards to come in, I'm not the least bit afraid of going
back to that."
Even if there is a wait, it won't bother Marietta Mayor Bill Dunaway,
who is running for re-election in November.
"I'm so old I date back to the old paper ballot," says Dunaway, who is
66. "So anything is faster than what I grew up with."
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