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June 18, 2001
Entrepreneurs Stump for Their Voting Devices
By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE
Larry Mayer for The New York Times
Robert Saar, left, and Charlotte Mushow, officials from DuPage County, Ill., talked on Sunday with Fred Redick, right, of Election Technology Alliance, about their voting system at a convention in Billings, Mont.
Florida Leaders Sign Agreement for Overhaul of Voting System (May 4, 2001)
Little Change Forecast for Election Process (April 26, 2001)
ILLINGS, Mont., June 17 This may be one of the most unusual trade shows in America, one where vendors are hawking democracy itself.
Aiming straight at the heart of the weaknesses revealed in the Florida election last year, 53 entrepreneurs, including mom-and-pop operations and computer giants, have assembled here this weekend to sell their wares to more than 600 state and county elections officials who, collectively, may be making purchasing decisions worth billions of dollars in the months ahead.
The poster in the booth of Election Technology Alliance a new, Florida-inspired consortium of Sun Microsystems, Epson America and International Lottery and Totalizator Systems says "It's Time For a Change!" over a collage of newspaper front pages from across the nation trumpeting the havoc in Florida after Election Day 2000. The consortium developed a touch-screen voting machine in the last few months and unveiled it here today.
Vote-Trakker by Avante International Technology Inc. is also directed squarely at voter insecurity. "Was my vote counted and counted correctly?" its promotional material asks, noting that it is "the only system that provides a tangible receipt." It also makes an appeal to the military market, saying it can reproduce just about any ballot from the nation's thousands of voting jurisdictions "to allow our military personnel and other absentee-ballot voters to vote and have their votes counted correctly at the same time as everyone else."
Even a Japanese company is hoping to capitalize on America's voting vulnerabilities. A Tokyo firm called EVS is here introducing a machine that it says "eliminates disputed and invalid votes."
The election-machine industry was fairly anonymous, low-dollar, plodding and predictable, until Florida. Now, the desire by county officials to avoid the Florida experience and the promise of billions of federal dollars have suddenly transformed the industry into a high-stakes shootout that has lured some of the biggest names in computers into the quirky elections field.
"Florida got our juices going," said Fred Redick, western regional manager for Epson, as he set up his booth here at an annual convention of elections officials.
"The level of interest is so high and the problem is so thoroughly documented that public officials are on the hook," Mr. Redick said. "That got us in the market."
It is the big contracts that make manufacturers see dollar signs. Houston is laying out $25 million for a new system created by HartInterCivic of Austin, Tex., and Dell Computer. Chicago spent $13 million for a new punch-card system by Election Systems & Software of Omaha, the industry leader.
Tony J. Sirvello III, administrator of elections for Harris County, Tex., which includes Houston, said that during negotiations with Hart, he joked that the company should provide its new system for free because it would reap untold sums of free publicity.
"If everything goes wonderfully," Mr. Sirvello said, "they're going to fly to the moon on our coattails."
But the Houston and Chicago purchases were in the pipeline before the November election, and many here worry that despite the possibility of striking it rich, the industry's future is uncertain.
For one thing, no federal money has materialized. Houston and Chicago put up their money themselves. While many here hope that the new Democratic control of the Senate will produce some cash, they recognize that Republicans in the House, not to mention the White House, could block it.
The lack of money has already caused a slowdown in the market and has prompted a number of companies to form partnerships and offer creative financing or leasing packages.
"The industry is being hammered, killed, by the federal government," said David Chaum, founder of Sure- Vote, which makes election systems. "When they promise subsidies and say they're going to solve this problem, all these people here stop buying." Only a handful of counties have spent more than $1 million each on voting equipment since the November election.
For another thing, the technology is in flux. The Election Technology Alliance was not the only company to unveil a new machine here today. So did Sequoia Voting Systems, showing off its boxy Optech Insight that the company says makes it easier to read optical-scan ballots.
Third, there is no agreement on the best system, and many counties are not in a position to evaluate the new technology. Some elections officials said they were not particularly interested in changing systems because they believed the real problem in Florida was not technology but voter error and poorly trained poll workers.
Florida has banned punch cards, but a third of the nation still uses them and probably will in the 2004 election. Los Angeles, which uses punch cards, just completed a mayoral election with little problem. "We maintain them, we clean them after elections, and the system still works," said Conny B. McCormack, the registrar of Los Angeles County.
Against this backdrop, trolling the vendor booths here can be bewildering. The sales pitches are full of leaps of faith and catty asides about the ability of small competitors to meet production demands and of big companies to respond to small markets.
Dan T. McGinnis, vice president of sales for Election Systems & Software, said: "Not many are coming in with any special knowledge, just with a product. Expertise in the elections process is more important."
This has led many companies to hire elections officials to give them credibility and connections within the stable, close-knit and aging world of election administrators. Sequoia just hired Kathryn Ferguson, who has overseen elections in San Antonio, Las Vegas and San Jose, Calif.
While some people question whether the market is big enough to sustain all the new companies, James E. Snow, marketing manager for the Election Technology Alliance, reflected the sense that there would be more than enough business to go around. "We don't want all the business," Mr. Snow said. "We'd be happy with half of it."
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