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CBS4 Investigates: Does Your Vote Count? The Overvote Worries

MIAMI (CBS4) - Imagine going to the polls November 6th and casting your vote for President Barack Obama or Governor Mitt Romney and somehow the machine thinks you voted for both candidates. That's called an overvote, and your vote may be thrown out.

Sound impossible? It isn't.

"You are  getting to the crux of the problem with this technology. We are supposed to trust what goes on back there blindly," voting rights advocate and attorney Lida Rodriguez-Taseff told CBS4 Chief Investigator Michele Gillen.

Rodriguez-Taseff  has spent a decade battling to pull back the curtain on election transparency. She helped get the touch screen machines tossed in Florida in favor of getting voters a paper ballot and paper trail - only to learn that the variety of optical scan machines now in use now across  America and  Florida may have flaws no one could have predicted. Or could they have?

"Nobody has done and in-depth study to determine how well those machines are really working," Rodriguez-Taseff cautioned Gillen. "It absolutely leaves me pause that we're not looking at those machines more closely.  The technology that is used for voting is generally inferior to the computing technology that most people have in their homes.  And in their cars and their iPhones and cell phones.  So the fact that we're not looking more closely at this technology is really troubling to most people yes," said Rodriguez-Taseff.

Kitty Garber knows the optical scan ballot and its history in  Miami-Dade.  She is the  co-founder of the Florida Fair Election Center, and she's worried about the optical scan system Miami-Dade county residents will cast their ballots on this presidential election. In fact, she's been concerned over how we cast ballots here for the past five years.

At the heart of Garber's concern is how often the machine - the ES&S DS200  in Miami Dade County, registers an overvote. That's when, according to the machine,  a voter  has voted for two candidates in the same race. Their vote may then be invalidated... thrown out.   Where does Miami-Dade Stand in terms of overvotes visa vie the whole state of Florida?

"It's the worst," said Garber referring to the top two races studied by the state of FLorida in 2010 and in the top race, she said, "Miami-Dade again came up with 43% of all the overvotes statewide. It's awful. It's terrible. There should be virtually no overvotes," said Garber.

What concerns voting rights advocates? A lack of answers as to what's causing this problem?

"The problem could arise from many different places. It could arise from the fact that voters need to be trained not to overvote. It could arise from the fact that oncevoters overvote... they aren't being properly notified and it could arise from the fact that voters are not being made to correct their ballot. Lastly of course it could arise from the fact that the machine has a problem and is recording overvotes when it shouldn't be," said Rodriguez-Taseff.

That's exactly what was just discovered to have happened in a 2010 race in the Bronx NY.

"It became obvious that this was a machine error and not a voter error," says Larry Norden of NYU's Brennan Center of Law who helped expose that that the machine misread dozens  of votes as overvotes-- with no one noticing.

"It is unacceptable. The whole point of elections is for people to make their choices known And we should have technology that is able to do that," says Norden.

It was what Norden says was the alarming number of overvotes detected in Miami- Dade races, that caught his attention and led the Brennan Center to investigate the ES&S DS200 machines in use in a 2010 race in the Bronx.

"We looked at the record in Florida and saw that there were very high numbers of over votes, particularly in Miami-Dade county which was using this machine but particularly in all of the counties that were using this particular voting machine in Florida," Norden added.

According to Norden, after the machines were  left on for a few hours of voting--- one machine  wrongly read dozens of votes as over votes... and all those votes were lost.

The conclusion of the manufacturer was essentially summed up this way.  "It appears that the unit was out of calibration and when the unit heated up over a period of time, the scanned image was distorted and the system recorded votes that were not marked."

"It is absolutely chilling to hear their account of what happened with the machines. The problem is they can make whatever diagnosis they want. They can say, oh it was the temperature of the machine you don't know. There's no way for outsiders to know," said Rodriguez-Taseff.

Keep in mind, that while Miami Dade and the Bronx both use the DS200, our investigation finds that the software in the machines are different versions.  Could that affect or prevent the same problem from having happened here, or happening in the future?

CBS4 investigates has tried to find out.

Despite the Bronx meltdown making New York headlines and raising questions about the machines in use around the country - the Supervisor of Elections in Miami-Dade and the department's supervisor,  have denied our requests for an interview regarding the optical scanners, the problems in NY and whether anything has been done to prevent, preclude or identify a similar problem here.

On why they refuse to do an interview on the subject:   "The Department cannot comment on the issue that was experienced in New York with one of their voting units. However, we can confidently state this has no impact on voting in Miami-Dade County," said Deputy Supervisor of Elections, Christina White, in a prepared statement sent to CBS4 Investigates.

"The advocates do not have the information required to make a real analysis of whether or not the problem can happen here," said Rodriguez-Taseff. "And part of the problem is that the technology is considered proprietary so they don't give access to anyone other than the state. And even the state has limited access.

The manufacturer has written CBS4 Investigates that following the Bronx problem: it "issued a best practices technical bulletin to all DS200 users reminding them of the need to properly calibrate and clean units prior to an election."

Broward County Supervisor of Elections, Brenda Snipes sat down with Gillen and answered a wide range of questions on the machines and concerns raised over what happened in the Bronx. Asked if she found out that a similar problem affected her machines, would she be outraged?  "That goes without saying," said Snipes. "Now do I have the ability or the resources to go in and test... what do we have... 12-13 hundred machines? No I don't.  No I don't," she pointed out and added, "It appeared to be that it was isolated to the Bronx.

Broward County's Department of Elections has given CBS4 Investigates access to shoot their machines. They too use the DS200 with software different from that  used in Miami-Dade or in the Bronx.

Unlike Miami-Dade, Broward does not have what voting observers consider a red flag number of overvotes.

Because of the potential fallibility of the current machines--- Taseff says its more urgent than ever that elections audit as many of the paper ballots as possible. Currently, by law in Florida, the departments are only allowed to audit a very small sample of the paper ballots, and only after the winner is declared and certified.

"We need to pay more attention to what is going on behind these machines so we can make sure that the next election is actually successful and every vote is counted," said Rodriguez-Taseff.


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