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Distrust fuels doubts on votes
Orange's Web site posted wrong totals
By David Damron | Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted November 12, 2004

More than a week after the presidential election, officials in Florida and other states are still sorting out computer-related errors in the vote, even as a Saturday deadline looms to certify the final result.

None of the problems appears likely to change the outcome. Still, the foul-ups are fueling new conspiracy theories focused on fears that millions of dollars spent on new election equipment across the nation failed to guarantee that all votes were counted.

Sometimes the problem is that votes were miscounted. That's what happened, officials say, with precinct-by-precinct results posted on the Orange County elections office Web site showing that Democrat John Kerry beat Republican President Bush by 9,227 votes in Orange.

That was off by 8,400 votes. Officials working for Bill Cowles, the Orange elections supervisor, said the correct totals, available elsewhere on the site, showed that Kerry bested Bush in the county by only 827 votes.

The cause of the error, Orange officials said Thursday, was a software program that could not tabulate more than 32,767 votes in a single precinct. On election night, officials anticipated the problem and adjusted for it, deputy election official Lonn Fluke said Thursday.

But the next day, workers failed to account for the glitch while posting precinct results online. When absentee-ballot totals exceeded the limit in one precinct, the software caused additional votes to be subtracted from Bush's total.

A similar discrepancy affected vote totals posted online for the U.S. Senate race between Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Betty Castor. But neither online counting problem made it into the real totals sent to Tallahassee, election officials insist.

"The election results we certified to the state are correct," Fluke said. The presidential and U.S. Senate absentee results posted online were "garbage."

Neither miscount was enough to influence Bush's or Martinez's Florida victories. But the conflicting data was not removed from the Web site until Thursday.

Similar counting problems were reported in Broward County and in Greensboro, N.C.

The Orange County Canvassing Board meets today at noon. Final county election totals will be tallied and sent to Tallahassee. Across the state, counties will do the same thing, adding late-arriving overseas absentee votes to the previously certified totals.

Those totals become the official election results.

But a number of Kerry supporters have gone to the Internet to spread their concerns that poll and machine-counting irregularities marred this election and may even have changed its outcome.

"Kerry won," reads one Web story headline. Another cyberspace report screamed "Stolen Election" based on uncounted ballots in Ohio and other voting irregularities in that state. Other non-Internet reports of voting concerns have started appearing, mostly on talk radio and cable TV news shows.

Six Democratic congressmen have asked the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office to investigate the various claims, most centering on irregularities in Ohio and Florida, two states Bush won to secure a presidential victory.

"Now, we're not calling for a new election or anything of that nature," Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., told MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann, one of the few TV outlets to vet these claims early on. "But we need to give the American people the confidence that everybody's vote will be carefully handled by those in charge at the state and local level."

Here are some of the other problems reported nationwide:

In Franklin County, Ohio, which includes Columbus, officials said a machine reported an extra 3,893 votes for Bush, a still-unexplained mistake that was caught and will be corrected in the final tallies.

In one North Carolina county, more than 4,500 votes were lost in local and state races because officials mistakenly thought a computer that stored ballots electronically could hold more data than it did.

In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which includes Cleveland, vote totals appear to exceed the number of registered voters.

One vote-stealing theory being peddled online centers on Bush's large victory margins in small, rural counties of Florida's Panhandle, where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans. But the analysis fails to consider that these "Dixiecrat" counties have trended Republican for more than a decade, not just in 2004.

"They just can't let it go," said Joseph Agostini, Florida Republican Party spokesman. "They just can't get over what was a well-run and accurate counting of the vote."

Agostini said voting problems are not "on our radar" and he doubted Kerry would have conceded Nov. 3 if widespread irregularities occurred. "All this is," Agostini said, "'Much ado about nothing.' "

The man who initially discovered the discrepancy in Orange's Web precinct results is Vincent Profaci, an Apopka lawyer and Kerry supporter.

Profaci said he can swallow the software or data-input explanation offered by Orange's election office, but it still nags him that supposedly error-free machines are being counted on to decide elections.

"If these machines are counting in reverse here," Profaci said, "what else are they doing that we're not even finding out about?"

Profaci became concerned with electronic-voting machines after seeing results in Georgia's 2002 elections that were deeply at odds with the latest polls. That sinking feeling returned when Bush won Florida and the national vote, despite exit polling data that showed Kerry running strong most everywhere.

When Profaci went to bed election night, Kerry and Castor were running ahead by thousands of votes in Orange, with one or two precincts to count.

When he awoke and checked the Web site, those leads had evaporated. When Profaci checked the supervisor's precinct-by-precinct totals, he found the different totals.

"We, the public, have no way of knowing if these machines are counting our votes right," Profaci said.

Elections deputy Fluke said that in Orange, workers did count the votes correctly election night. But the Web-posted totals were indeed inaccurate.

"What got on to the Internet . . . that's the only place it went wrong," Fluke said. "Which also happens to be going out to the whole world."

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