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Concerns rise on early voting
By Eric Maddy/ The Observer (NM)   26 October 2004

Concerns over early voting in Sandoval County reached new levels Thursday, with representatives from both major political parties saying machine error may have caused votes intended for one side to actually be cast for the other.

The complaints were widespread:

• Three Republican voters spoke at a news conference, saying they were not sure if their votes were cast as they intended.

• Stan Read, the Republican candidate for judge in the 13th Judicial District, said he was not initially allowed to vote for himself or House candidate Glenn Walters and that he had to vote for an unopposed Democratic candidate in another judicial race to make the machine accept his ballot.

• At least one other voter had a similar experience, having to vote for a Democrat he didn't favor to make sure the machine would cast his entire ballot.

• A Rio Rancho woman who attempted to vote a straight Republican ticket said the machine switched all of her votes to Democrat. She said her daughter attempted to vote straight Republican, but her votes were all switched to the Green Party.

• Sandoval County Democratic Party chairman Ruben Miera said he had heard one complaint in Sandoval County where a machine switched Democratic votes to Republican, though metro television news programs reported that problem happened in several machines in neighboring Bernalillo County.

Eddie Gutierrez, manager of the Sandoval County Bureau of Elections, acknowledged minor problems but said most of the issues he had dealt with were due to voter error. Four machines used initially have been shut down due to electrical problems and Gutierrez hopes to add more machines at the early voting site. He said the machines (D,E,G,K) that were shut down would be set aside, but votes already cast would be tabulated with other early voting totals.

"I haven't seen the kinds of problems that you are talking about," he said. "I'm not saying they're right and I'm not saying they're wrong - I just haven't seen them. Most of the problems I have seen are people error, not machine error, and most of the people know how to operate the (touch) machines, but those who don't may have had some problems.

"We've had only 3,000 voters and a handful of complaints - you tell me (if there is a major problem)."

In a state where Al Gore defeated George Bush by only 366 votes in 2000 - and numbers are expected to be close again - any problem is a problem, said attorney Pat Rogers, who represents the Republican Party on many election issues and spoke at the news conference.

"These are machines that supposedly were certified and verified before the election," Rogers said. "These machines that are turning Republican votes into Democrat votes ought to be of concern to everyone who wants an honest count in this election.

"This election could come down to a very few votes, and it ought not to be decided by a malfunctioning machine. And we want to warn voters to watch for this. Whether you vote for Bush and Cheney and it switches to Kerry and Edwards, or the reverse occurs, your vote ought to count for who you intend it to count for and not who the machine wants to vote for, or worse, someone who programmed it in error."

The three Republican voters at the news conference all live in Rio Rancho. Scott Houghteling, his wife Joan and Billy Corbett identified different machines they voted on - Scott Houghteling on machine C, Joan Houghteling on machine B and Corbett on machine E. They said they attempted to correct votes at the end of the ballot by hitting a review button, but the machine would not let them without assistance from a poll worker.

A check of the early voting site Friday morning found that problems were likely due to an "inconsistent stream of electricity," to some of the voting machines, according to Don Anderson, owner of Ink Impressions Automated Election Services, the Albuquerque company that supplied the county with eight voting machines. The problem seems to be coming from machines that are not plugged into a constant power level, which could result in power surges, he said. As a result, some voting machines may be too sensitive to touch, while others may have to be pushed forcefully in order for the vote to register, Anderson said.

Despite the few glitches, voter turnout has been strong, said county clerk Victoria Dunlap, who encouraged voters to continue to vote early.

"I'm proud for their turnout," said Dunlap, who also said that voters should not be afraid to ask questions if they feel there has been an error on their machine.

"Early voters should review their screen before pressing the ion," she said. "Don't leave the voting station, don't be afraid to request someone to help you because that borders on voter intimidation."

Dave Bency, the only Republican on the county commission, did not learn of the complaints until after Thursday's commission meeting.

"I would say the Republican Party needs to make a formal complaint to the secretary of state regarding this to investigate it immediately, and if need be stop all voting until those machines are checked out," he said.

"The secretary of state ignored a three-inch thick book of complaints in 2000," Rogers said. "Complaining to the secretary of state will do no good. We're going to have to rely on Sandoval County to correct this problem. If they do not, we will go to court."

And Read relayed his own experience.

"When I got to a particular race (which he later identified as House District 60, Republican Walters vs. Democrat Tom Swisstack), it vote me before I touched anything and voted me for the person I was not voting for," he said.

After getting assistance to clear the machine, "It did it again," Read said. "As I went through the review process, I voted for myself but (it showed) I didn't vote for myself. I voted for no one in that race (according to the screen). I had not voted in the (Democratic judge) Violet Otero race, because she is unopposed. My race and her race were back-to-back, and I checked to make sure I did it right. As far as I could tell I didn't screw it up, so I voted for her even though I was not going to do that in an attempt to vote for myself.

"When I reviewed it (again) at the end, I had to punch it five or six times to vote in the contested race that it voted before I got there and in my own race. I was concerned."

While some candidates expressed concern that reports of voting irregularities might turn off voters, Republican district attorney candidate Pete Ross attempted to reassure voters.

"I've run twice in this county, and twice I've won," he said. "Both times (Democrat) Sally Padilla was the county clerk. There are more Democrats in this county than Republicans. If there was any skullduggery going on, it would have happened back then. I voted early and I had no problems with the machine.

"I would say go vote, and now that you are aware of it, watch and see what you are doing."

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