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Election problems due to a software glitch
November 05,2004
Sue Book
New Bern Sun Journal

A systems software glitch in Craven County's electronic voting equipment is being blamed for a vote miscount that, when corrected, changed the outcome of at least one race in Tuesday's election.

Then, in the rush to make right the miscalculation that swelled the number of votes for president here by 11,283 more votes than the total number cast, a human mistake further delayed accurate totals for the 40,534 who voted.

The glitch occurred Tuesday night as absentee ballot totals for one-stop early voting at three Craven County locations and ballots mailed-in were being entered, said Tiffiney Miller, Craven County Board of Elections director.

The Elections Systems and Software equipment had downloaded voting information from nine of the county's 26 precincts and as the absentee ballots were added, the precinct totals were added a second time. Precincts affected were Havelock East, Havelock West, River Bend, Cove City, Ernul, Fort Totten, Grover C. Fields, Glenburnie and West New Bern.

An override, like those occurring when one attempts to save a computer file that already exists, is supposed to prevent double counting, but did not function correctly, Miller said.

"I have redone every (personal electronic ballot) completely and am adding the absentees," she said early Thursday. "Every precinct was redone."

The second set of incorrect numbers came when the total for one of the batches of absentee ballots was not included in the first manual recount.

"That's why we have a week before the votes are official, so if we do find problems we can get them straight before the votes are certified," said Miller, who was in her office before 8 a.m. Thursday, hand-crunching the numbers retrieved from the voting machines.

New numbers put incumbent Commissioner Leon Staton in front of Republican challenger Tony Michalek for the Craven County Board of Commissioners District 5 seat. It does not appear that any other local races will be affected as a result of the malfunction, even with the results of about 1,000 provisional votes still to be entered Nov. 9.

Joined by her staff when the Craven County Administration Building opened, Miller already had been discussing the problem and remedies with Craven County Board of Elections Chairman Gloria Stanley, Electronic Systems and Software local representative Owen Andrews and North Carolina State Board of Elections Director Gary Bartlett.

Other than the cranking sound of numbers adding and an occasional ring of the phone, the office was dead quiet as they scrutinized the emerging tapes and hand-posted them on notebooks to be added by hand.

Craven County Commissioner Renee Sisk, a Republican who would be in the new majority on the board with Michalek's election, came by to assess the situation, followed by Craven County Manager Harold Blizzard, then Craven County Republican Party Chairman Steve Tyson, who both came in to inquire about the problem and possible solution. Then a national Republican political consultant who had watched the returns and had some concern that other precincts were involved in the problem entered the office.

Andrews arrived and made contact with the ESS home office in Omaha, Neb.

"What she is dong now is the failsafe way to make sure we get it right," said Andrews, of Owen G. Dunn in New Bern.

"When a voter casts the vote, it stays in the memory of the machine, which has redundancy as a safeguard," he said.

While there is no paper ballot, Andrews said "(Miller) has a paper trail. She can print as many paper vote tallies out of the machine as she'd like."

That information remains in the voting machine until the election is decided and it is deliberately removed.

Andrews will work with the manufacturer, Miller and the elections board to correct the problem to ensure it will not happen again, but said "it really has nothing to do with the integrity of the vote as cast or counted."

"We will produce an honest outcome by the time we canvass Tuesday," said Craven County Board of Elections member Walter Leake, who was one of the last to stop by the elections office Thursday. "The poll books will match the machine."

Election difficulties also were reported in a number of other North Carolina counties, including nearby Carteret, where 4,530 early votes were irretrievably lost.

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