Fla. loses 2002 vote data

Florida officials today confirmed that votes cast on touch-screen machines in the 2002 election have disappeared from a storage system where the data had been archived.

The information came from votes cast in Miami-Dade County, said Nicole de Lara, director of communications in the Florida Secretary of State's office. She said that all votes were counted and included in the final election tallies.

The data that now has been lost was on a separate server used to preserve the county's records, she said. State law requires that election results be certified within 10 days, and then the information is to be stored for 22 months.

"The most important message to drive home here is that no votes were lost -- the election went smoothly," de Lara said.

A citizens group called the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition discovered the problem after requesting all audit data from the 2002 election, said Martha Mahoney, a member of the group.

Mahoney, who is also a law professor at the University of Miami School of Law, said she was following up on reports that electronic voting machines in Miami-Dade recorded significantly fewer votes than there were voters. Without the audit data, she said, she cannot investigate further.

"What you get on the night of the election [from touch-screen machines] is a summary total," she said. But the only individual record of the votes is in the ballot image report, which is electronic images of each ballot cast, she said.

Florida officials told Mahoney that the data had been lost in two system crashes, she said. At the time, it was reported in Florida news outlets as a racial impact story, she said. It was a natural response, since minority disenfranchisement was one of the key issues in the contested 2000 election.

"But what happened was there was a lot less attention at the time to the problems of electronic voting," Mahoney said.

The incident is the latest in a string of events that have sparked fears about the reliability of electronic voting systems. The machines from Election Systems and Software Inc. functioned properly in this case, but the back-up system intended to retain the data failed.

Skeptics of electronic voting have advocated taking measures to increase the ability of election officials to conduct audits after an election. The most common proposal is to require the machines to generate a paper receipt, which voters can use to verify that their votes were accurately recorded. Should a challenge arise, or if officials simply want to audit the accuracy of the machines, they could hand-count the paper receipts and compare the results to the machine-generated totals.

De Lara said she did not know how long ago the data vanished or how much was lost. A member of the office's division of elections was traveling to Miami today to meet with officials there, she said.

"We were not aware of it," she said. "Miami-Dade County did not inform us."

The Coalition has requested that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush conduct a statewide audit of electronic voting machines, a request that Bush has so far refused.

With regard to the missing information, "What we see from this is that errors can happen," Mahoney said. "They can happen despite instructions to the contrary."

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