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Glitch could force state to vote again

MICHELLE CROUCH   Charlotte Observer   09 November 2004

More than 4,500 votes irretrievably lost in coastal Carteret County could trigger a new statewide election if the official margin of victory in two Council of State races is close enough, state election officials said Monday.

The problem, which one expert called one of the worst election glitches nationwide, occurred on a machine that wasn't set correctly.

"This is one of the few cases in which the votes were totally lost," said David Dill, founder of the Verified Voting foundation.

The votes, all early ballots, could affect the races for superintendent of public instruction and agriculture commissioner, both too close to call Monday.

Counties will add totals from as many as 75,000 provisional ballots to their returns today. If the final margin in any race is within 4,532 the number of lost votes in Carteret the losing candidate can file a protest with the N.C. State Board of Election.

It's unclear what would happen in that case. Attorneys are studying whether the board could call a new election in Carteret County only, or even ask the disenfranchised voters to vote again. (Local elections officials have their names.)

But state law may not allow that: "The new election shall be held in the entire jurisdiction in which the original election was held," it says. That could mean the whole state.

Gary Bartlett, the state board's executive director, did not know Monday if the state has ever had to redo a statewide election; it hasn't happened in recent memory. A second election would cost between $2.5 million and $3.5 million, he said.

"We've had some machine discrepancies in the past, but none has ever impacted the result of the election," Bartlett said.

The maker of Carteret's push-button voting machines, UniLect Corp., acknowledges it told county officials the machines would hold more than 10,000 votes. The machines actually held 3,005 because the computer software had not been d.

"It was a simple mistake, one that could be fixed with a simple two-second key stroke," said Jack Gerbel, the company's president. "None of our customers have ever lost even a single vote, and now this."

Gerbel said the machines flash a warning message when there is no more room for storing ballots. "It was either ignored or overlooked," he said.

Bartlett said Carteret County elections officials have sworn the message never appeared.

Gerbel said his company is looking for a way to stop the machines from accepting votes after the memory is full.

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