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Polling problems plague Wichita

By Robert Morgan, Matt Terrell and Brent D. Wistrom/Times Record News
November 3, 2004

Problems with vote-counting machines in Wichita County left several races undecided Tuesday, and a hand count in a ed precinct verified errors, leaving candidates to wonder if they should celebrate or concede.

Local counts for all races couldn't be confirmed because of problems with Wichita County's vote-counting computer or software.

One of the two computers at the Wichita County Courthouse failed around 9 p.m. and election officials noted a suspiciously high number of ballots without votes for one or more candidates.

More than 6,900 of about 26,000 ballots - mostly early votes - did not record votes for president with 10 of 52 precincts reporting. Similar problems were noted on all other races.

Wichita County Judge Woody Gossom said errors with the vote-counting software may have triggered the problem.

"It permeates the whole thing," Gossom said of the apparent problems.

Democrat and Republican chairmen and District Attorney Barry Macha agreed the results appeared irregular, Gossom said.

It could have been caused by a myriad of things.

"A spider could have crawled over a certain section," Gossom said.

Officials found no problems with chads, he said.

The Texas Secretary of State's office and Elections Systems & Software, the creator of the county's vote -counting system, will work with county officials to resolve the problem.

County Republican Party Chairman Carolyn Nicholas said officials picked Pct 10 at the MSU Hardin Administration Building for a recount, because it had a good turnout and an unusually high number of undervotes. In the initial count, Precinct 10 had 400 undervotes. After the hand-counting, officials only registered 2.

In the 2000 election, Nichols said, Precinct 10 had a 1.6 percent rate of undervotes, compared to 25 percent in the 2004 election. That drastic change brought up a lot of red flags, Nichols said.

"I'm just glad we caught it," she said just after midnight.

Everyone was in agreement that a hand-count should be conducted, Gossom said, nothing partisan.

Nichols said she didn't believe it was any one person's fault and officials had worked hard, given the high voter turnout.

Ann McGeehan, director of elections with the Secretary of State's office, said local officials had to continue counting the ballots because test runs of the equipment last Thursday showed the machines were working properly.

The number of ballots without votes for one of the available candidates - called "undervotes" - would be unusual even in hotly contested elections with many undecided voters.

In 2000, the county had 618 undervotes and 118 ballots that registered votes for more than one candidate in a race. In 1996, 718 ballots did not have a ion for president and in 1992 there were 265.

Gossom said 3 percent is a normal number of undervotes.

"We have all begged for the past three years to have this equipment upgraded," Gossom said.

Incomplete, unofficial tallies

Leaders for Democrat and Republican campaigns reacted coolly to the apparent voting problems.

"It comes down to having confidence in elected officials and Gossom and two party chairs to do this," incumbent Dist. 69 State Rep. David Farabee said in reaction to the voting problems.

Jack Klaus, campaign spokesman for Republican challenger Shirley Craft, said he believes the errors will affect the outcome.

"The numbers we see now don't mean anything," he said. "Any of the races could go the other way."

At 11 p.m., with 10 of 52 precincts counted by the apparently failing voting counters, President George Bush was leading in the county with 2,860 votes to Democratic candidate John F. Kerry's 1,005.

Of that total, 924 ballots showed no votes for either candidate.

The problem persisted down the ballot.

Farabee was leading Craft 2,319 to 1,334, with 1,174 undervotes.

Democratic incumbent 89th District Court Judge Juanita Pavlick led Republican challenger Mark Price 2,102 to 1,522, with 1,197 undervotes.

Incumbent District 30 State Sen. Craig Estes, a Republican, led Democrat Paul Gibbs 2,501 to 1,021, with 1,302 undervotes.

District 13 U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, led Libertarian candidate M.J. Smith 3,141 to 424, with 1,262 undervotes.

A referendum to give pay raises to Wichita County Sheriff's personnel had 2,235 votes for and 1,151 against. It had 1,440 undervotes.

Presidential voting and turnout

If the presidential voting continues in Bush's favor, it would be no surprise. Wichita County has chosen Republican presidents since at least 1980, and Texas hasn't swayed electoral weight toward a Democrat president since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

In 2000, 65 percent of Wichita County voted for Bush and 33 percent voted for Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman.

Along with his apparent victory in Wichita County and in Texas, Bush had a commanding lead in the Electoral College as of midnight.

"Obviously, because this follows the election of 2000 that took over five weeks, that's really negative," Michael Preda, a Midwestern State University political science professor, said. "People want a clear end to this."

Election officials reported high turnout. In 2000, 52.7 percent of registered voters voted.

"Obviously, early voting was fantastic here in Wichita County so that certainly helped," Preda said.

In record-setting early voting, which may prove unreliable, Bush easily carried Wichita County with 74 percent or 14,500 of 19,511 votes. In 2000, Bush had 67 percent of early votes and Al Gore carried 32 percent.

Sloppy weather traditionally lowers voter turnout. Tuesday, nearly an inch of rain fell through the polling hours and a temperatures hit a high of only 53 in the late afternoon when voting is often most intense.

"Historically, good whether favored the Democrats and bad weather favored the Republicans, but his race is not typical," Preda said.

Andrew Morin, a local chef and volunteer for the Republican National Committee, said he wasn't pleased with either candidate. But, as Wichita County voters have traditionally done, Morin, voted for a Republican president and local Democrats this year.

"I'd rather go with the devil I know than the devil I don't," he said as East Coast results were announced on a TV at a local bar and restaurant. "But, honestly, I didn't like him last time either."

Donnie Williams left work an hour early to make sure his vote counted. He said he only votes in presidential elections and that he made his decision early in the race.

He was one of thousands that didn't let a cool, soggy night deter them from casting a ballot.

"A little rain doesn't hurt anybody," he said, standing under a shelter outside of Washington-Jackson Elementary School after voting. "It's important to come and vote."

Sharri Torrence brought her 14-year-old son to the poll to show teach him about voting. Her son watched as she took her ballot and placed it on the red hooks. He watched his mother in silence as she punched the ballot and then placed it in the canister.

"I wanted to show him the importance and responsibility of voting," she said. "Being African-American, I think that's a very important thing to have."

Staff writer Jessica Langdon contributed to this story.

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