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Absentee miscount throws at least five races into doubt
Saturday, March 13, 2004

Register City Editor

The results of the race for supervisor between Harold Moskowite and Mike Rippey, along with several other races on the March 2 ballot, were thrown into doubt Friday after more election errors surfaced in Napa County.

A machine that counted more than 13,300 paper ballots, around 30 percent of all ballots cast, skipped what could turn out to be thousands of Napa County votes, the county elections department announced.

The error was caused by a poorly calibrated tabulation machine that didn't recognize the ink some voters used on their absentee ballots, according to John Tuteur, registrar of voters. The missed votes were not limited to any one race, and will most likely change the final percentages for every race, measure and proposition that local residents voted on.

"I don't know how significant it (is)," Tuteur said. "The machine that had read all the ballots ... was not counting all the votes."

Tuteur said the current tally is "off enough" to potentially affect the District 5 race between Rippey and Moskowite. According to the last tally before the problem was discovered, Moskowite had won by about 50 votes.

Calistoga's Measure A, which asked city residents to change the city clerk and treasurer positions from elected to appointed jobs, had won by less than 20 votes.

At least three of the Republican Central Committee races in Napa's five supervisorial districts are also in doubt.

County Measures O, P, Q, R, and S were all defeated by margins so wide that the error will not affect their outcomes, Tuteur said.

"It was so random. It's not like only Mike Rippey votes were missed, or Harold Moskowite votes were missed. It was just (skipping) certain inks," Tuteur said.

The problem was discovered Thursday, after elections department officials completed a manual tally of a randomly ed precincts. State law requires elections departments to manually count ballots from 1 percent of precincts after the results are in.

When the manual tally didn't match the results supplied by the tabulation machine, the department contacted its elections equipment vendor, Oakland-based Sequoia Voting Systems, which has been Napa County's voting supplier for 25 years, according to Tuteur.

Sequoia representatives discovered that the machine had not been calibrated to recognize "new types of ink available in pens now on the market," according to Tuteur.

The machine was recalibrated, the votes were fed back through the machine, and the new tally matched the hand count, Tuteur said.

The 11,300-plus absentee ballots plus 2,000 more mail-out precinct ballots will be recounted Wednesday morning at the elections office.

Those votes account for roughly 30 percent of all votes cast in Napa County, while the other 70 percent were made on electronic voting machines.

Overshadowing previous problems

The Rippey-Moskowite race was already marred by an absentee ballot error, in which approximately 90 incorrect ballots were sent to permanent absentee Democratic voters whose last name begins with the letter "S."

Those District 5 voters were mistakenly sent District 4 ballots.

On Friday, Tuteur responded to Rippey's request for a full investigation into all absentee ballots sent to District 4 and District 5 voters, saying he would "respectfully decline to undertake that survey."

"... There was no indication that the problem of incorrect ballots in the 5th District election extended beyond the approximately 90 absentee, Democratic voters," Tuteur wrote to Rippey.

Linda Scott, spokeswoman for Rippey's campaign, said the supervisor and his supporters were disappointed that Tuteur would not undertake the full investigation.

But she expressed more concern over the latest errors.

"Now the problem is, who has confidence in the machine?" she said.

Scott offered one option to clear up the election: Tuteur and his office could hand count all District 5 votes, and compare those to the machine tabulation.

"That's the only way anyone's going to have any faith in this election," she said.

Calls to Moskowite's home and office were not returned in time for publication, but Tuteur said Moskowite or someone from his campaign would be on-hand, along with Rippey supporters, to witness the recount Wednesday.

These are just the latest in a string of minor and major election problems in Napa County in recent years.

In March 2003, some St. Helena residents received ballots that lacked races they were eligible to vote for. In November 2002, Lake Berryessa residents received the wrong ballots.

Also in November 2002, absentee voters eligible to vote for the Napa Valley College board of trustees race received ballots without the candidates on them.

That error led to a re-vote in March 2003, and put Bruce Ketron on the board instead of Luc Janssens, who had won the November election by six votes.

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