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Winner so far: Confusion
By MARK JOHNSON for The Charlotte Observer.
05 November 2004

Agriculture, education races change as counties fix vote-tally errors

RALEIGH - Winner so far: Confusion Agriculture, education races change as counties fix vote-tally errors Mark Johnson

RALEIGH For a few brief hours on Wednesday, N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Britt Cobb saw his Tuesday election loss turn to a win.

By Thursday, he was losing again.

"These results are changing. They are going up and down," said Cobb's spokesman Marc Siegel. "We don't believe any of it until we get the final, confirmed results." That won't be until later this month.

The roller coaster of fate was caused by vote-counting glitches in at least five counties besides Mecklenburg. Foul-ups ranged from stubborn levers to a computer error that changed some results by 22,000 votes and, in Carteret County, 4,500 votes that were lost and may not be recovered.

Two statewide races are at issue: agriculture commissioner and N.C. superintendent of public instruction.

Democrat June Atkinson switched from loser to winner, for now, in the public instruction race.

"Things like this have happened before, but not to this magnitude and level," said Gary Bartlett, executive director of the N.C. State Board of Elections. "There are more things at stake because there are closer races than at any other time."

Bartlett's staff is working with county officials to resolve problems. Election results won't be certified until Nov. 23, so county and state officials have more time to correct errors.

Mecklenburg officials released corrected vote counts Thursday night that changed the totals, but not the winner in either the agriculture or public instruction race.

The biggest change in vote totals outside Mecklenburg was in Guilford County, which includes Greensboro. The computer that tabulates the totals choked when officials uploaded the early voting numbers, which was a particularly large batch of data.

"So it just threw some of (the votes) away," said Guilford County elections director George Gilbert.

Before the votes were retallied, Cobb, who looked like a loser on election night, had won by 1,500 votes, according to the elections board's Web site. Gilbert, though, had backup tapes that contained the vote tallies.

When he retrieved those numbers and gave the corrected figures to the state board of elections, Cobb had an additional 4,000 votes and his Republican opponent, Steve Troxler, another 13,000. Troxler was the apparent winner again.

The new Guilford numbers boosted Atkinson's votes by nearly 12,000 in the superintendent's race, putting her ahead of Republican Bill Fletcher, who got 3,000 more votes in the .

The Guilford totals didn't change President Bush's win in the state, but did shift the vote total by 22,000.

Carteret County officials couldn't solve their problem so easily. The manufacturer of their push-button voting machines, California-based Unilect, told Carteret officials that the machines would hold more than 10,000 votes. They actually held 3,000 because the computer software had not been d by Unilect, as the county's maintenance contract apparently required, Bartlett said.

"We do have an apology from the vendor," Bartlett said, "but that certainly does not solve our problems."

County officials are able to identify whose votes were not counted, and one option is to ask those voters to vote again, which would require action by the state board.

Other snags included:

? Voting machines in Yadkin County marked about 300 votes for hand scrutiny, but had still counted them. Elections officials unknowingly counted them again, but corrected the error.

? A tabulating computer in Craven County was recording precinct totals over top of one another instead of adding them together. Corrected numbers overturned the result in a county commissioner's race.

? A slip-up in Onslow County put vote totals in the wrong order for the five county commission candidates. Correcting the error didn't change who won, but did alter the order of finish.

? The straight-party vote lever did not work on some of the 32-year-old machines in Chowan County. Elections officials responded by temporarily shutting them down until a technician could fix them. No one complained about uncounted votes, but they did endure longer lines.

N.C. counties use seven different methods of voting, from paper to touchscreens. A state elections advisory commission is drafting statewide standards for counties to use in ing voting machines, and the state has secured at least $52 million in federal grants that could be used to purchase new voting equipment.

Bartlett emphasized that the post-election safeguards audits, recounts, protests and double-checking questionable ballots are all working "to ensure the candidates who received the most votes are certified the winners."


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