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Waiting in Wichita

Count could resume today

By Robert Morgan/Times Record News
November 4, 2004

Wichita County's voting solution may come today in the form of two officials from the Texas Secretary of State's office and a computer programmer from Elections Systems and Software.

"We have rallied as much support as we can," County Judge Woody Gossom said.

The programmer arrived Wednesday night carrying the hopes of county officials for an overnight repair.

"She will conduct the test to see how the new program reacts before any ballots are run. If she says OK, we will run Precinct 10 and see how it goes from there," County Clerk JW Martin said.

Despite smooth practice runs, Martin said the machines were unable to produce a reliable count of Tuesday's election ballots because of an unusually high number of "undervotes." Undervote ballots are those in which people did not vote in all races.

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.

Such a high count of "undervotes" is unusual, Gossom said.

"We think the problem was in the program and the way it counted straight party votes," Martin said.

Election Judge Gordon Wallace agreed. He said they had done all the things they knew to do and believed the problem was a technical glitch involving the software's count of straight party votes and party votes.

Gossom was in contact with ESS Wednesday in hopes of bringing a technician on site to deal with the problem. The company did not consent to the request until late afternoon.

A Wichita County deputy was dispatched to Arlington to pick up and bring the ESS programmer to the County Clerk's office. She arrived shortly after 9:30 p.m. and will stay through the end of counting.

After she conducted software tests, county officials and political representatives left the county clerk's office, leaving behind the sealed ballots cans guarded by two sheriff's deputies.

Texas Secretary of State Geoffrey Connor suggested the county not go any further than testing in their nighttime procedures.

"We will follow the secretary's suggestion because we want the assistant secretary and the office's computer expert. We want witnesses here from the secretary of state's office," Martin said.

The county clerk said if the ESS programmer is able to fix the ballot counting software and the two test runs produce reliable results, a complete count would resume today at 10 a.m.

The clerk's office was rampant with questions, but no answers Wednesday as county officials and political party representatives worked to remedy polling problems.

Local Republican campaign leaders Wednesday afternoon called for a manual recount of Wichita County ballots, saying faltering vote-counting machines could not be trusted.

Martin said a manual recount requires approval from the secretary of state and must be conducted only on individual races, not the entire ballot.

Even if a manual count is conducted, the results would be unofficial and could be overruled by results issued by the county. If a manual count of the 40,000-plus ballots is authorized, each political party would likely have poll-watchers present.

Campaign leaders and county leaders do not know how long the count might last or how much it would cost.

Vote-counting problems surfaced around 9 p.m. Tuesday and continued Wednesday morning as election officials processed ballots.

Election officials believe machines are counting votes correctly but that computer programs that process results are malfunctioning.

No one knows what the problem is, Republican County Chairman Carolyn Nicholas said. Two Republican poll-watchers observed election officials Wednesday as they checked for problems with the machines.

County Democratic Party Chairwoman Bettye Tanner-Shelby requested two Democrat poll-watchers also oversee the process. Wichita County District Attorney Barry Macha is also monitoring workers.

Gossom said errors with the vote-counting software may have triggered the problem.

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

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