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Insider Emails - FL Voter 2006 Database Problems

Insider Emails Reveal Florida's Voter Registration Database Was Plagued With Problems in 2006

- New Computerized System was Rife with Bugs, Unexplained Errors and Party-Flipping According to Newly Revealed Documents...
Guest Blogged By Michael Richardson BLOGGED BY Michael Richardson ON 4/12/2007 11:27AM

The 18,000 "undervotes" in Sarasota and other questionable elections in November 2006 election were not the only problems faced by Florida voters last year. Most of them, in fact, likely have no idea just how bad it really was.

Florida's statewide voter registration database, and election management systems designed to work with it, were plagued in early 2006 with a host of problems. Some of the details are now revealed by a raft of email messages sent recently by a source to the non-partisan election integrity watchdog group which posted them quietly on their site for public scrutiny.

Sixty-four email messages to election officials, spanning a four-month period from January to April 2006, from VR Systems, a Florida corporation, document a staggering series of serious problems with Florida's new computerized voter registration database during the early months of its implementation. The emails, from Jane Watson, a manager at VR Systems, provide a disturbing picture vis a vis a nearly day-by-day report from inside the software test lab.

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The Florida Voter Registration System (FVRS) is statewide voter registration database described by Watson in the emails as a "home grown system" built by IBM to Florida specifications and maintained by Department of State staff. Voter Focus is a software system, unique to Florida, which provides election management functions to 60 Florida counties.

The emails tell the tale of software failures which began in January 2006 as programmers furiously work to solve program glitches and failures prior to the state's upcoming elections. The system went online before development was complete, in order to meet the January 1st deadline imposed by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The source of the Florida emails, an insider familiar with the development and implementation of the database who has requested anonymity, tells The BRAD BLOG that, "The system should never have seen the light of day until the bugs were worked out. They used the voters and county election officials as guinea pigs to experiment on and test the program."

Documented failures include the software somehow, without apparent reason, switching the party registration for voters. As one of the emails describes: "We are seeing instances of voters being changed to a different party when there was no user activity. This is our top priority now." And the next day: "We worked this weekend on diagnosing voters whom we suspected as having had their party changed by Voter Focus...There were 3 counties with high numbers of suspected cases of this kind of inadvertent party change."

The emails remain unclear on whether the problems were completely found and fixed, and whether or not all voter files had been correctly restored. Later emails suggest that various related problems still existed months later when voters, whose registration should have been recorded in the system, were nowhere to be found., a website which tracks the progress of the implementation of statewide registration databases, currently describes Florida's system as "Still working out kinks."

Jane Watson, the author of the memos, spoke with The BRAD BLOG and confirmed the authenticity of the emails. She explained that the federal government with its HAVA mandates "didn't understand the time it takes to develop programs."

While Watson stressed her confidence that no voter was disenfranchised in 2006 because of bugs in the statewide voter registration system, she admits that "party changes never have worked as well as they should" and that "there are still some things to work out..."

She says that funding and staffing shortages remain an issue, though she believes that, overall, and counter to the indications in the recently uncovered email notes, the Sunshine State's voter registration database is working well.

"The Department of State is short of staff of technical people," she told us. "People don't realize how complex these systems are. Unfortunately, voter registration has been a poor stepchild. But the Florida story is a success story, we are doing well, perhaps much more so than other states."

The Florida Department of State's Division of Elections did not respond to our request for comment.

The details of Florida's registration system woes are perhaps best illustrated by the recently obtained emails, as written by Watson, which documented many of the troubles as they were discovered last year…

FVRS Week Two, Tuesday (Jan 10, 2006): "Things that used to work…don't always work"...

Tuesday felt like the day we went backwards on the Support team side; things that used to work in FVRS [Florida Voter Registration System] don't always work and the backlog of work of things we have not had time to attend to is growing. IBM is hammering us with their changes and fixes and we feel like we are testing in constantly shifting sands.

FVRS Week Two, Thursday (January 12, 2006): "Horrendous problem…would have severely corrupted voter records"...(See Document 3)

Thursday was a more even-keeled day but late Thursday we diagnosed a horrendous problem in the Voters Program Suspense Queue that Rita, Lee and Clint were testing in Brevard County--we are extremely grateful to them for their diligence and testing stick-to-it attitude. They found a problem which, if we had released that version of Voters, would have severely corrupted voter records.

FVRS Week Three, Thursday (Jan 19, 2006): "Blank records may have appeared"...

We had a small setback Thursday when, as a result of a programming error, blank records may have appeared in your Suspense Queue. Please ignore these records. We are going to retrieve the true records properly and they will appear in your database just as soon as we can. We apologize for the inconvenience.

FVRS Week Four, Wednesday (Jan 25, 2006): "Red Alert…means something is seriously wrong"...

The Red Alert button on the console is similar to the "check engine" light on a car dashboard. It means something is seriously wrong and needs to be fixed as soon as possible. Users should not be processing voter registrations if FVRS Notes is not running. We have heard of some creative avoidance of the flashing red alert such as continually restarting FVRS Notes but this is not the way to go. If FVRS Notes keeps stopping then please contact us so we can diagnose which specific piece of data is making it choke.

FVRS Week Four, Friday (Jan 27, 2006): "We thought we tested thoroughly"...

Friday was one of our most difficult days ever. I don't remember ever having to withdraw two programs in one day and apologize twice. In each case we thought we tested thoroughly but apparently we had not….In some cases a minor party description may have been changed to 'Not Registered with the State.'

FVRS Week Five, Thursday (February 2, 2006): "Serious issues….voters being changed to a different party"... (See Document 17)

Thursday was a day of constant diagnosis. There are some serious issues still but the problems are not new, they have been there since January 1st, and we are whittling them down and making constant progress.
Wrong Party
...We are seeing instances of voters being changed to a different party when there was no user activity. This is our top priority now.

FVRS Week Five, Friday (Feb 3, 2006): "Friday was a tough day…three major issues"...

Friday was a tough day--we were aware of three major issues--voter parties being changed, active 17 year olds and voter records that are present on FVRS but not locally.
Wrong Party
...We worked this weekend on diagnosing voters whom we suspected as having had their party changed by Voter Focus. The audit shows FVRS as the operator but the main mistake was in our code. There were 3 counties with high numbers of suspected cases of this kind of inadvertent party change.

FVRS Week Six, Thursday (Feb 9, 2006): "A false audit…sometimes appears"...

A false audit of city, city ward and zip code sometimes appears on the voter audit. The voter's actual city, city ward and zip do not change, but there is an appearance in the audit as though it has. We are working on this as a high priority.

FVRS Week Ten, Thursday (Mar 9, 2006): "DMV printout but no record in FVRS"...

DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] printout but no record in FVRS. Lake County has reported a husband and wife both with paper printouts as proof of their voter applications from DMV. One is in the FVRS system and one is not.

FVRS Week Fourteen, Monday (Apr 3, 2006): "Birthplace…not being saved correctly"...

We are aware that the birthplace data element is not coming through the FVRS system correctly. We have received an example where it started out as Germany and became Delaware. We have started to pursue that issue.

FVRS Week Fourteen, Thursday (Apr 6, 2006): "Disappearing election status"...

Previously there was a problem with the "disappearing election status" on the day of the election.

Disappearing elections? Germany becomes Delaware? False audits? Party switches by the software without cause?

What the heck is going on in Florida? How much of this system is available to transparent public oversight? And is there anybody watching the watchers at this point? Or are things still mired in the murky days of Jeb Bush, Katherine Harris and friends?...


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