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State to probe Gaston election

Officials visit Monday to review counting and auditing procedures

BINYAMIN APPELBAUM & MARK JOHNSON Charlotte Observer   19 November 2004

State Board of Elections staff will travel to Gaston County on Monday to investigate how Gaston officials counted and reported votes after the election.

Gary Bartlett, the board's executive director, said the state wants to know if the county properly audited its results, among other things, by checking whether the number of people recorded as voting equaled the number of ballots cast.

The Observer reported Thursday that the numbers did not balance in more than half the precincts in Gaston County. Gaston elections officials said they had been unaware of the problem.

"This instance is troublesome, and we're concerned," Bartlett said of the report. "But we don't have enough information yet to say whether this is a real red flag or just a concern."

A red flag would mean evidence that some ballots were not counted, or that some people voted twice. It is not likely that such a problem would affect results of the Nov. 2 election the differences total about 500 votes but jobs could be at stake. Employees at the elections office say they increasingly fear that possibility.

The team from the state board includes general counsel Don Wright. Gaston becomes the second county where the state has launched an investigation, joining Carteret County, where a machine lost 4,500 votes.

In Gaston, the state also will investigate whether a technician employed by a private company did work on Election Day that should have been done by elections officials.

The Gaston Board of Elections paid for the presence of a technician from Diebold Election Systems, which manufactures the county's voting machines.

Gaston Elections Director Sandra Page has told the Observer that the employee loaded the county's early votes onto a computer and otherwise assisted in the vote-counting process, a job reserved for elections officials.

"We don't want that technician to do anything that is the responsibility of an election official," Bartlett said. "If you have some technician doing that, there better be some election official right beside them."

But Page has told the Observer that she did not watch the entire process. She says the county Board of Elections watched, but Richard Jordan, one of three board members, said he did not remember watching.

Page did not return a call for comment about the impending state investigation. Earlier Thursday, she said her staff was beginning a slow slog through its records to reconcile where it could the number of votes with the number of voters.

Both Page and Bartlett said some of the differences may reflect the failure of poll workers to record the names of people who voted curbside, or the improper inclusion of the names of people who completed provisional ballots. Those problems would be relatively easy to resolve.

But the bigger issue has become the time it took for Gaston officials to catch the problem.

Each precinct is supposed to record the name of each voter in a log book. The number of the names in the book at the end of Election Day should match the number of ballots cast. And counties are supposed to cross-check the numbers before submitting official results to the state.

Elections officials in neighboring counties said the discrepancies therefore should have tripped alarms much sooner.

Gaston's apparent failure to balance the numbers "surprises me because I always just thought that's a part of the audit process," said Judy Caudill, director of elections in Lincoln County.

Page has said she simply cannot explain what went wrong. She has said that she was sick during the week after the election, and therefore prone to mistakes.

Also Thursday, four counties Cleveland, Harnett, Orange and Onslow offered final corrections to the recount in the races for state schools superintendent and agriculture commissioner.

The additions altered the margin of victory slightly from Wednesday's recount result but didn't change who won. Republican Steve Troxler won the agriculture commissioner's race by 2,287 votes, down from 2,656 after the election. Democrat June Atkinson won the schools superintendent race by 8,535 votes, down from 9,254 on Nov. 2.

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