A computer crash that forced a pre-election test of electronic voting machines to be postponed was trumpeted by critics as proof of the balloting technology's unreliability.
The incident in Palm Beach County — which is infamous for its hanging and pregnant chads during the 2000 presidential election — did not directly involve the touch-screen terminals on which nearly one in three U.S. voters will cast ballots on Election Day.
But critics of the ATM-like machines said it proved how fickle any computer-based voting system can be and highlighted the need for touch-screens to produce paper records.
Tuesday's public dry run had to be postponed until Friday because a computer server that tabulates data from the touch-screen machines crashed, said county elections supervisor Theresa LePore. Such "logic and accuracy" tests are required by law.
She said she suspected Hurricane Jeanne, which struck in September, may have zapped electricity and air conditioning to the room where the server was stored, causing temperatures to soar to 90 degrees or more and possibly causing the crash. The storm wiped out power to nearly 1.3 million homes and businesses throughout Florida.
The incident raised questions in the minds of computer hardware and software engineers about the reliability of other computers on which Floridians will depend for an accurate vote count on Nov. 2 — especially touch-screen machines.
An Achilles' heel of electronic voting equipment, just like any machines whose circuits get hot with colliding electrons, is its inability to tolerate extreme conditions, many experts say.
"Heat is a very serious problem for these machines, especially in Louisiana and Florida," said Dan Spillane, former senior testing engineer of touch-screens for a small equipment manufacturer in Seattle. "Basically, these things work in the secretary of state's office. Outside of that, no one knows."
LePore, who lost a re-election bid and will be replaced as supervisor in January, said the incident did not result in deleted or altered data and she predicted a smooth election on Nov. 2.
"We can always go back if everything totally crashes and burns," she said. "We still have the info on the cartridges and the voting machines."
LePore was referring to the memory cartridges in the touch-screen machines that record the votes.
Critics of paperless voting systems used in 15 Florida counties said the incident demonstrates their pleas for a system that includes printers on every touch-screen and produces paper records of every ballot cast.
"I don't have any confidence at all in these machines," said Susan VanHouten, a poll worker in Lake Worth, Fla., who has helped mobilize 900 monitors at polls in Palm Beach County on Nov. 2. "At this point, the only thing we can focus on is getting as many people as possible in the polls to watch for electrical problems and hardware and software problems."
According to technical standards for electronic voting systems, updated in 2002, voting machines must be able to tolerate storage temperatures ranging from minus 4 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. They must be able to operate in "natural" conditions and temperatures ranging from 50 to 95 degrees.
Those standards aren't satisfactory to Vincent Lipsio, a firmware design engineer in Gainesville, Fla.
Lipsio, who is helping draft e-voting equipment standards for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, said most hardware that's considered "mission critical" — including medical devices, military equipment and aviation hardware — should tolerate 180 degrees or more. He worries that the machines could fail under a variety of extremes, from heat waves to lightning storms and severe low-pressure systems.
"Conceptually, the whole electronic voting thing is now so far from what I think is acceptable that I would never vote for it, if I had the choice," Lipsio said. "These standards aren't any more mission critical than your average video game."
Lipsio said he took little comfort in knowing that the meltdown at the Palm Beach elections office happened during a trial to help spot such problems.
"What happens if there's a hurricane on election day, or terrorists knock the power out?" Lipsio said. "The reality is these machines are dependent on electricity, and unless you're going to have generators at polling places, you need a paper backup system."
Mechanical problems during California's March primary caused nearly half of all touch-screens in San Diego County to malfunction, causing hundreds of precincts to open late. Heat-related troubles have flared up in other counties.
In the July primary, numerous machines in one elementary school in Decatur, Ga., failed throughout the day, when temperatures exceeded 90 degrees, according to a report by poll monitors.
An executive at Sequoia Voting Systems, which provides Palm Beach County's touch-screens but not the county office server that crashed, called critics' fears were overblown.
"These machines have been tested to severe conditions, and we haven't seen any weather-related problems — from dry Nevada to humid Florida," spokesman Alfie Charles said.