Big bar code backfire
Misprint blamed for days of hand-sorting absentee ballots
By Ann Imse, Rocky Mountain News
November 14, 2006
Denver is still counting votes a week after the election because bar code misprints on 70,000 absentee ballots required five days of hand-sorting of 23 ballot styles.
Ballot styles vary because voters live in different legislative and congressional districts. With correct bar codes, scanners would have sorted the different ballot styles automatically as they were counted.
Sequoia Voting Systems misprinted the bar codes and mailed out the absentee ballots directly to voters under a contract with Denver.
The Denver Election Commission learned that the Sequoia scanner could not sort ballots when it tried a test count Oct. 19, election commission executive director John Gaydeski said Monday.
Because the commission had been mailing absentee ballots for nearly two weeks, it decided it would have to hand-sort them.
Gaydeski knew about the problem with the Oct. 19 test but didn't learn that it was because of a Sequoia misprint until Monday afternoon, six days into a vote-count debacle that has left several races undecided.
The mayor's office was not informed, his spokeswoman Lindy Eichenbaum Lent said Monday evening.
Gaydeski found out after the Rocky Mountain News asked him why Jefferson County managed to count 100,000 paper absentee ballots by 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, five and a half hours after polls closed, and Denver is still working on the same job with 70,000 absentees one week later.
Sequoia's vice president of communications, Michelle Shafer, did not return four calls and pages seeking comment.
Gaydeski said that the election commission's now-suspended technology chief, Anthony Rainey, discovered the problem and informed his bosses when he tried to count a test-pack of absentee ballots Oct. 19. Rainey is now on investigative administrative leave.
Rainey was in charge of voter-registration computers that slowed to a crawl on Election Day, causing hours-long lines that prevented a number of citizens from voting.
Another reason for Denver's slow count is the size of its ballot, twice as many pages as Jefferson County's.
The Voting Rights Act requires bilingual ballots if more than 5 percent of the voting-age population speaks another language, so Denver's ballot questions were printed in Spanish and English.
That, and a few more judicial races, made Denver's ballot spill onto two sides of two pages. Jefferson County's English only ballot had only two sides of one page to count.
For five days in Denver, 14 poll workers in a cramped backroom bumped into each other, sorting the first page of each ballot, with candidate names, into 23 boxes in a row against the wall, supervisor John Mills said. The second page had to be sorted into two types.
Many Denver voters also had a hard time following directions for marking their ballots. They used red ink not read by scanners, markers that ran through to the other side, and circled or X'd their choices, instead of drawing a narrow line to connect two arrows, poll workers said. Other voters changed their minds and scribbled their intention or political commentary on the ballot.
As a result, 5 percent or more of the absentee ballots are being transcribed by poll workers onto clean ballots, so they can be scanned by the Sequoia machines.
Some "look like people's pets filled out their ballots," said Rocky Rushing, the commission's staffer in charge of the absentee count.
Temporary election staff began feeding absentee ballots through the scanners eight days before the election, though they are not allowed to look at the count until the polls close.
But the scanning was interrupted on Election Day when one of two machines broke down in midafternoon.
That one was fixed and a third loaner brought in by Sequoia Thursday morning.
Denver had counted 22,679 absentee ballots by just after midnight election night, the same time Jefferson County completed counting all of its 107,944 absentee ballots.
Jeffco elections chief Susan Miller said that only a few hundred of her absentee ballots remain outstanding, awaiting signature and other verification.
Denver finished the hand-sort Sunday, and had 62,309 absentee ballots counted by Monday afternoon. But it did not expect to finish counting the remaining 3,820 absentee ballots Monday night because they were being transcribed, spokesman Alton Dillard said.
State law requires all absentee ballots to be counted by Thursday.
Another 3,000 provisional ballots are still be checked for the voter's validity.
An independent election consultant is to be hired to review Denver's entire process.
Previous problems of Sequoia Voting Systems
• Aug. 8 Sequoia Voting Systems' voting machines cause confusion at some polling places during the primary election when "card activators" bring up incorrect ballots in some cases. The problem is blamed on inadequate training of election workers.
• Oct. 11 Sequoia says it is sending letters to 44,000 voters warning of a mistake on absentee ballots after it's discovered that the "yes" and "no" boxes on a ballot question are transposed.
• Oct. 12 Sequoia miscalculates return postage for thousands of absentee ballots. Instead of the correct 87 cents, the postage is listed as 63 cents.
• Nov. 7 Tens of thousands of Denver voters stand in lines, some for three hours after polls closed on Election Day. Glitches occurred in voter-registration software that was purchased from Sequoia for $85,000, according to the election commission's technology chief, Anthony Rainey. He called the glitches normal for newly developed programming.