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BREAKING NEWS: Republican primary results delayed until Thursday or Friday
By Toni Garrard Clay
Henderson County is looking more and more like Florida every election day. There are no hanging chads here, but there are thousands of Republican primary ballots that cannot be read correctly by the vote counting machines.

All the ballots must now be hand counted, according to both party chairman Dub McCarty and County Clerk Gwen Moffeit meaning the Republican primary results will not be known before Thursday or Friday at the earliest.

The ballots used to vote in the Democratic primary had no difficulty properly running through the machines. The two parties used different companies to supply ballots.

Problems with the Republican ballots being incorrectly read by the machine were discovered last Wednesday during a test run, which led to a new set of ballots being ordered for election day. By then it was known early voting ballots would have to be tabulated by hand. The hope was that the new shipment would keep that from being the case for election day results.

The new ballots were received by McCarty on Saturday. He delivered them to the county clerk's office Monday morning, and they were given a test run through the machine the same day. Fifteen of 18 ballots tested were counted incorrectly, according to McCarty. Efforts to adjust the machine so that the ballots could be read properly continued through Tuesday afternoon, to no avail.

 Hand counting for early and mail-in ballots in the Republican primary began at 8:15 Tuesday morning at party headquarters and ended at 7:30 that evening; 1,176 ballots were counted.

The results of three different races for district attorney, Pct. 1 county commissioner and Pct. 2 constable are being decided entirely in the Republican primary.

All the candidates in those races were contacted after 4 p.m. Tuesday and informed of the problem.

Both incumbent DA Donna Bennett and challenger Barry Bilger expressed frustration and disappointment with the development. The district attorney's race has been particularly contentious this election season.

"Rats!" said Bilger when asked for his reaction to the news. As he waits for results in the coming days, the Athens attorney said he would begin to pick up his campaign signs.
 "Everybody's disappointed," said Bennett. "Of course, we've all worked long and hard and would like to know (the results) this evening."

Even before the incompatibility problem with the ballots and the vote counting machine was discovered, printing problems were detected on some Republican ballots just as early voting began. The name of Pct. 6 constable candidate Mike Warren did not appear on all the ballots in his precinct, and Pct. 2 constable candidate Norman Terry's name appeared on some of the ballots as "Norma" Terry.

Moffeit said the county clerk's office was unaware of any problems with candidate's names until the first day of early voting, Feb. 23, when a voter complained about Warren's name not appearing on the ballot as it should have. She said another voter called in to complain about the spelling of Terry's first name.

"I immediately contacted the candidates and told them we regretted the problem," said Moffeit. "They were very gracious."

McCarty notified Howard Widmer, a sales representative with Capital Graphics the Hutto company that supplied the ballots and replacement ballots arrived Feb. 25.

Terry is in one of the three races being decided in the Republican primary. He faces two Republican opponents, while no Democrats filed. Warren, however, did not face a Republican opponent, and that race will be decided in the general election.

McCarty said he ordered over 6,000 ballots from Capital Graphics after the company submitted the lowest of five bids. He said a letter from the Secretary of State's Office mandated that at least three bids be solicited and the lowest be taken. Until this election, the Republican Party used Hart Civic to supply its ballots. The county Democratic Party remained with Hart Civic. There were no known problems with those ballots.

Moffeit said a technician for the company that supplies and maintains the county's vote counting machines ES&S (Election Systems & Software) told her the ovals on the Republican ballots which must be darkened in order to chose a candidate "were not properly spaced where the machine could count them."

McCarty spent hours on the phone Tuesday explaining the situation to people. It was, he said, a very bad day without a clear-cut culprit to blame for it.

"The machine people say it's the printer's fault and the printer people say it's the machine's fault. And I'm in the middle, and I'm going to have to count all of them."
 Widmer from Capital Graphics said the ballots do not run through the vote counting machines properly because "ES&S modified their equipment ... unknown to us, unknown to Mr. McCarty and unknown to the county clerk.

"When we were notified of that," he said, "we immediately made adjustments and shipped on Friday a rerun of all the ballots."

According to both Moffeit and ES&S, no modifications were made to the machines.

Moffeit said the shipment of ballots sent on Friday and received Saturday was the result of a conference call between herself, Widmer and a tech from ES&S who said the ballots did not meet the specifications required by the machine.

When asked to speculate why the ballots supplied by Hart Civic can be read properly when those from Capital Graphics cannot be, Widmer replied: "That I do not know."

McCarty said hand counting will likely begin sometime Wednesday morning. The number of election day Republican ballots casts cannot be determined until the ballot boxes from each precinct are unlocked which will not happen until counting begins.

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