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Latest Gaston flub: 1 precinct omitted

Dallas votes added to tally Monday; officials still can't explain errors

BINYAMIN APPELBAUM  Charlotte Observer   13 November 2004

GASTONIA - Gaston County Elections Director Sandra Page, already struggling to explain why most early votes were omitted from the county's unofficial election results, said Friday that her office had also omitted an entire Dallas precinct.

Responding to a question from the Observer, Page said Gaston's unofficial results excluded 1,209 votes cast at the Dallas Civic Center. She said she learned of the problem one or two days after the election, but did not correct the unofficial results until Monday.

"I guess people are angry with us about this, but it was not done on purpose," she said. "It's astounding, but we just missed it."

The revisions did not affect the outcome of any local race. And Page again insisted on Friday that there were no errors in the county's official results. All the votes were eventually counted, she said. The problems were "part of the reporting process, not part of the voting process."

But it is the second time in a week Page has conceded a major error in the unofficial results her office sent to the state and published online after the Nov. 2 election. She announced Tuesday that she had discovered the absence of about 12,000 early votes.

Page said she still cannot explain how the errors occurred. In different interviews with the Observer, she has blamed human error and computer error for each of the problems. And she said Friday that she has yet to contact the manufacturer of the county's voting system, Diebold Election Systems.

In part, Page said, she has been sick for two weeks and may have been slow to catch the errors as a result. She has not worked since Tuesday and spoke from home.

She also said her office is cramped, moldy and deteriorating and that she and her short-handed staff were overwhelmed by their responsibilities during an unusually busy election season.

"When I was finally able to get to a computer by myself, and I had to come in early to just sit and look, I did find it," she said, referring to the errors.

The three-member Gaston Board of Elections, which supervises Page, is responsible for an accurate vote count. All three were present on Election Day, again on Saturday when they counted provisional ballots and again on Tuesday when they certified official results.

They have not met to discuss the vote-counting problems. Two of the three members said they learned about the Dallas omission from the Observer. The third did not return a call.

Board member Richard Jordan said he regretted the mistakes and intended to ensure that similar errors did not recur at the next election.

He said he wants to develop a checklist of election-night tasks and a roster of responsibilities neither of which was in place on Nov. 2.

Jordan said, however, that he did not think Page should be disciplined.

"I suspect there's enough guilt to go around here," Jordan said.

"I think the overwhelming nature of this election revealed a weak point in our process and we just need to make sure that's corrected."

But Jordan, Page and board member Lanier Williams have said they simply don't know what went wrong. Chairman Tony Branch could not be reached for comment.

The Dallas error came to light when precinct officials brought their equipment to the elections office either one or two days after the election Page said she was not precisely sure.

Each precinct transmits results to the elections office by modem after the polls close. When equipment is returned between Wednesday and Friday, the results recorded on it are compared with the results transmitted by modem.

There was no data for the Dallas precinct in the database.

Office records from election night, kept by a staff member, showed that information was received, Page said. She believes the computer system recorded a successful transmission without receiving any data.

Mark Radke, Diebold's marketing director, said his company had no reports of a problem in Gaston County. Generally speaking, he said, a false transmission was unlikely. There were no reports of similar problems from the many other jurisdictions across the nation that use the machines, he said.

"It's prone to human error," he said when asked about problems with the system.

Four or five days passed from when Page learned of the error to Monday, when she called the state. She says she was busy checking in other equipment and answering phone calls.

When she did call the state board, executive director Gary Bartlett said she told them she would the county's vote totals on Tuesday, when Gaston submitted its official results.

Bartlett said Page was asked to send the information immediately. He said she was also asked whether there were any additional problems, specifically with the early vote totals.

Page said she was not aware of any. She called the next morning with 12,000 more votes.

Page initially said the Diebold technician who uploaded the early votes may have skipped a crucial step. She now says she's pretty sure the problem happened in the transmission.

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