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Not again: Vote glitch latest AC debacle
By WAYNE PARRY | Associated Press Writer
November 7, 2007

Let's review: The former mayor is facing a potential prison sentence after lying about being a Green Beret in the Vietnam War in order to fatten his veteran's benefit check. The two weeks he dropped out of sight before resurfacing to acknowledge the investigation, as well as a dependence on painkillers, generated nationwide headlines about the "Missing Mayor."

The man who replaced him as acting mayor owes the city more than $360,000 from a lawsuit settlement that the state Supreme Court says should never have been paid.

And he could be bounced from office as early as next week by the local Democratic party, which is still loyal to a former council president serving 40 months in the federal slammer for taking bribes.

So maybe it should have come as no great surprise that the counting of countywide votes in Tuesday night's election crashed and burned here when a computer software glitch delayed the tabulation until 3 a.m. Wednesday.

"It's always something here," said community activist Steven Young. "We don't need anything negative in the political arena for the next 40 or 50 years here; we've got more than enough to last till then. The essence of democracy is you go to the polls, vote, and the votes are counted that night."

This time the problem was with Atlantic County government instead of the beleaguered city government.

It started when the polls closed Tuesday night, and workers tried to transfer the data from about 320 electronic voting machines to a central database that would count them all. Poll workers withdrew the data cartridges from the machines, loaded them into a data reader, and then ... nothing happened.

The machines' manufacturer, California-based Sequoia Voting Systems, said it was not to blame. Rather, a spokesman said, the problem was with Atlantic County's computers.

"We helped them walk through a system configuration issue," said Howard Cramer, Sequoia's vice president of sales. "Once it was identified and corrected, they were in good shape. Sometimes trying to track down those issues can take a little bit of time."

Sequoia's software worked properly, he added.

At issue, Cramer said, was the county's server, a computer that controls the functions of other machines. Cartridges from each voting machine that contain voters' choices are placed into a reader, which sends the data to the server. The server then compiles the results, Cramer said.

Asked if Atlantic County had made a programming error, Cramer said, "I don't know."

John Mooney, Atlantic County's elections superintendent, did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Sequoia's assertions. Earlier in the day, Mooney said his office was working with Sequoia to try to figure out what had gone wrong.

In practical terms, the glitch was annoying but not insurmountable. Candidates for state Senate were able to divine whether they had won or lost by having campaign volunteers manually count vote totals rung up by individual machines at each precinct, even though the votes are considered unofficial until they are certified by the county elections chief.

"We had challengers at each precinct, and we got reporting back from them," said Raiyan Syed, campaign manager for Democrat James Whelan, who was elected to a Senate seat. "They were there when the machines were closed, got the numbers and phoned them in. We knew Whelan was up by a huge margin and was going to win."

Syed said Whelan had no complaint with the way the results were handled.

"The integrity of the process was protected, and every vote was counted," he said. "At the end of the day, that's what's important."

But what is also important to New Jersey election officials is making sure similar problems don't happen again.

"We're always concerned that elections work efficiently and accurately," said David Wald, a spokesman for state Attorney General Anne Milgram. "We are demanding to know from Sequoia why these tallies didn't work in Atlantic County when it worked in other counties."

Electronic voting machines have been used in more New Jersey districts over the past several years, and the general election in November 2006 was the first time that computerized balloting was used in all 21 counties.

Many of the machines, however, have no paper backup, raising questions about security and fraud. As a result, a new law requires that the electronic voting machines must produce individual permanent paper records for each vote by Jan. 1.

The machines in question, however, did have paper backups that were able to be read and informally counted.

Despite the snag, Wald said New Jersey is not rethinking its use of electronic voting machines for future elections, noting that the problem appeared to be isolated, and did not affect the integrity of the vote.



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