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BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -– When it comes to voting, new electronic machines are giving elections officials here a harder time than nature did.

Fourteen months after Hurricane Katrina scoured the Mississippi Gulf Coast, displacing county offices, scattering voters and washing away polling places, the chief logistical hurdle in the first big post-hurricane election on Tuesday is getting the newfangled touch-screen voting terminals ready to go.

“I’ll tell you what,” said Gary Gilmore, chairman of Hancock County’s Election Commission, sweeping his hand across a modular building crammed with more than 100 of the new Diebold machines, “this is the biggest pain.”

Gilmore and his four fellow election commissioners have been struggling for weeks to train poll workers how to use the terminals and load them with software that contains the half-dozen different ballot “styles” that are needed to reflect the various political districts throughout the county. Each machine then has to be tested to ensure that all ballot versions work. Then the memory cards that tally the votes are loaded and the machines need to be distributed to their precincts, beginning at 1 p.m. Monday.

Gilmore said the county’s old punch-card machines could be set up “in about a day and they cost about a nickel on a dollar what these cost.”

Hancock County’s experience is being repeated all across Mississippi as the state joins others under the federal mandates of the Help America Vote Act, passed two years after the 2000 election debacle in Florida to help states update their voting equipment. With federal grant money, the state provided the Diebold machines to 77 of its 82 counties, according to David Blount, communications director for the secretary of state.

System's first true test

The machines had a “very, very, very light” tryout in the June Democratic primary and runoff, Blount said, but Tuesday is their first true test. In June, the system worked well everywhere but Leflore County, where bad programming kept them offline for the first half of the voting day. Paper ballots were pressed into service while the glitch was fixed. “As far as we know, nobody was disenfranchised,” Blount said.

“That’s one county out of 77,” he emphasized. “We expect some bumps in the road. It’s new. Ultimately, what it comes down to is poll workers.”

Red Tape Chronicles: E-voting grows, concern remains

While most of the fussing in Hancock County is about the $3,300 voting machines, there were some hurricane-related wrinkles to iron out to conduct the election, which features races for U.S. Senate and House seats and some judicial and school board contests.

For starters, according to Chief Deputy Circuit Clerk Karen Ladner Ruhr, 16 of 26 county and private buildings that housed polling places were washed away or seriously damaged by Katrina. Some of those have been fixed or replaced, she said, but nine have not. At those locations, 12-by-24-foot aluminum sheds have been erected for voters so the polling places are all “still in the same spot even if the building’s not there,” to avoid confusing voters. “It was a quick fix but it worked,” she said, giving reporters a quick tour of one of the windowless sheds with its bare plywood floor and three naked light bulbs.

Ruhr is keeping a wary eye on the weather report. “I said 'Don’t rain on Election Day' because our little sheds don’t have awnings outside them for people to stand under.”

County officials also had to scramble to ensure adequate staffing for the midterm vote. Two of the county’s five election commissioners resigned after the storm and half of its poll workers left town, Gilmore said. And Ruhr has no good guess on how many of the county’s 26,000 registered voters will show up.

The officials say they managed to replace the missing poll workers. Glen Meranto, who agreed to take over the commission district for the southwest corner of the county, says he only recently came up with enough workers to cover all his precincts. “I was kind of sweating it. I thought I might have to work at one of my polls, he said.”

The city of Waveland, which will run its own separate election for mayor and council seats, will have just one post-storm polling place for all four wards, in the city’s board room at its temporary City Hall facility. That means voters will need to go to two different polling places if they want to vote in both city and county and congressional races. Since municipal elections are not covered by the new federal law, voters in the city races will cast their votes on old punch-card machines.

Other counties also race the clock

Other jurisdictions along the storm-struck coast say they’re also buried in last-minute election preparations.

In Harrison County, which includes the cities of Biloxi and Gulfport, election officials will deploy 250 of the new Diebolds, the most of any county in the state, said Circuit Clerk Gayle Parker. “We’ve been training workers for a month” to get the county’s 66 precincts ready to serve its 91,000 registered voters, although she believes turnout will be in the 30 to 40 percent range. Harrison lost 15 polling places in Katrina and consolidated them into other precincts in the June primary without any problems.

In Jackson County, a spokeswoman said no polling locations have changed, although some of the 40 precincts may now be housed in trailers.

All polling places will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Despite the extra setup time, the touch-screen machines enable much more rapid vote-counting. Although some polling places are an hour or more away from the county government complex, their votes can be tallied instantly once the Diebold memory cards arrive. Ruhr expects Hancock County to post final results by 10 p.m., two hours earlier than was possible using the old technology.

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8 COMMENTS

It would have been best, imo, to hold off on using the electronic voting machines until 1 - the region had recovered sufficiently from Katrina, and as we all know, that won't be in the near future. And 2- they need to take precautions to prevent hacking.

After what happened in Florida when Bush stole the 2000 election, and the numerous voting irregulaties since then, it is imperative that the government do all it can to prevent voter disenfranchisement.

I'm not holding my breath, though....

Electronic voting is a crock. Mississippi wasted tens of millions of dollars on this boondoggle, which makes elections both harder and easier: harder to vote and easier to steal. These machines are demonstrably easy to hack and easy to modify to steal elections without leaving evidence of any kind. We should go back to optical scan, because there was nothing really wrong with that technology. In Florida 2000, it was a combination of bad ballot design, poorly trained poll workers and poorly informed voters. It wasn't the technology at all, but pure human error. By the way, I'm a computer scientist with a master's degree and nearly 20 years' professional experience, and I'm saying these new voting machines are a disaster.

One final thing: Diebold's leadership have made no bones about their support of Republican politicians and Republican policies. At the same time they refuse to allow independent review of the source code running on these machines, claiming that it's "proprietary". There should be nothing proprietary about something used in the public interest. Given that Mississippi is a largely Republican state--mind-boggling in itself given how dirt poor we are--would people here be so complacent about this if Diebold management were outspoken Democratic partisans? I didn't think so.

Welcome to the world of corrupt & hackable elections.

Here.... Let me kick you while you're down. As though you guys don't already have enough things to worry about... Now you can't even be sure you'll be able to have an open, transparent election to select the representatives who will help you recover.

These stupid machines should be thrown into a landfill in favor of old-fashioned paper ballots that are verifiable.

I used one of the new electronic touch screen voting machines last week to vote. If the voter is too stupid to follow the instructions, they sould not vote!

If the election board can't manage it, replace the election board!

This is the 21st Century, wake up America and stop having excuses!

John,

Would your tune be the same if Hillary Clinton & the Democrats controlled the voting machine companies and refused to make the elections verifiable with paper receipts?

I have not yet, to this day, heard of any stories of votes being flipped from Republican to Democratic candidates on electronic voting machines. But I see stories all the time about Democratic votes being flipped to Republican candidates on the machines.

if you can't recognize the problem, maybe we shouldn't be exporting "democracy" to Iraq.

I think the money would be better spent rebuilding the Gulf Coast and America anyway.

Finnish Computer expert Harri Hursti was able to hack through the Diebold machines in a test authorized by a Florida voting official. He got the machine hacked quickly, with a 200usd magnet card reader/writer, he flipped the vote results and added his own text in the screen in the middle of voting. Diebold machines were also hacked by a team led by Princeton University scientists (articles on Hursti hack in Washington Post, Boston Globe etc). The central issues are that A) Diebold opposed these tests furiously, why? B) that there would be a major upheaval/scandal if LOTTO machines or ATMs would be equally unreliable, but they are seem to work fine, again and again millions of times every single day, without our checking accounts or LOTTO numbers being messed up. The only glitches ATMs can usually have are with missing paper for receipts. It is ironic Diebold feverishly also opposes leaving any kind of paper trail. WHY? More and more people are starting to wonder... Mr. Hursti, who has been a pioneer in the european WWW company Eunet and other major IT companies, said the Diebold machines are designed to be hackable.
This is a key statement which has not been dealt at all in major U.S. media/TV news. It appears that voters are being cooked slowly like lobsters, not noticing the difference. Further irony is in the fact that Hugo Chavez seems to own a company which owns the Sequoia voting machines company... The system should go back to paper everywhere immediately, or even better, hammer, chisel and granite should be used.

The new machines that Mississippi is using do have a paper trail. It prints off when you vote and you check to make sure that it is correct before you leave. It really should be easy for everyone to use. Now getting the power to the machines might be a challenge..

Well you think that's bad we are being robbed of our election her in Georgia also, the electronic machines in the prodomintly african american communities (who tend to vote democratic)are not even running properly. In counties such as Dekalb, Fulton, Clayton, Rockdale... were tryin hard to get Mark Taylor elected to Governer but I've lost faith in the BUSH VOTING SYSTEMS.

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