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Problem machines spur call for recount
by Nate Jenkins for the Lincoln Journal Star 14 November 2004

The state Democratic Party wants a recount of Lancaster County votes, alleging there is no proof that the mechanical glitches that slowed counting Tuesday did not also skew the final figures.

"I do think they counted several thousand votes with malfunctioning machines," said Barry Rubin, executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party.

The Nebraska deputy secretary of state for elections, Neal Erickson, a Democrat, said Wednesday that a recount is not justified "under any reason of fairness" and is confident that the counting, while slow, was accurate.

County Election Commissioner David Shively said problems with voting machines prompted him to stop the counting around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday until they were fixed.

They were fixed, Shively said, a few hours later by technicians with Omaha-based Election Systems & Software, the provider of the election machines and systems used by the county. Counting resumed later Wednesday morning and was completed at about noon.

"I was never concerned about the counting," Shively said Wednesday. "It was the mechanical part ? (the machines) would just stop on us."

"I don't feel good about what happened," said Shively, a Republican who was reappointed to a second term as election commissioner by Gov. Mike Johanns last year. "I wanted to have a good election. But again, I feel confident the results are accurate."

Under state statutes, Erickson said, recounts are not automatically triggered by mechanical problems with voting machines.

Absent such an option, Democrats likely will keep a close eye during the canvassing process to make sure all votes that were cast were counted.

Certification by the canvassing board is expected late this month.

Democrats suffered a series of losses statewide, and in Lancaster County their big disappointment was Matt Connealy's performance against Republican Jeff Fortenberry in the race for the 1st District congressional seat. Connealy lost the county by nearly 2,900 votes and the district by more than 29,000.

A Lancaster County recount would have to produce a dramatic, improbable turnabout to garner Connealy enough votes, but Barry Rubin, executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said he saw enough at Election Commission headquarters in the wee hours of Wednesday morning to warrant one.

"We walked in to find a debacle of a situation," Rubin said. When party officials questioned Shively about problems with voting machines, Rubin said, "he was clearly unwilling to provide us with any reasonable response."

While malfunctioning machines did count votes included in the final tallies, both Shively and Erickson said, the malfunctions were not the type that taint vote counts.

The problem, described by Shively: While machines correctly fed themselves just one ballot at a time, their software at times incorrectly detected two ballots. The machines in all cases stopped short of actually counting two ballots, Shively said, and instead responded by shutting down.

Election Systems & Software released a statement Wednesday that said, in part: "Sometimes there are mechanical and technological issues that must be dealt with quickly and efficiently. In the case of Lancaster County we learned that two pieces of equipment were experiencing some mechanical issues. ? The issue has been dealt with and all the votes have been tabulated correctly."

Shively said it became clear after 2 p.m. Tuesday that problems existed. At that time, officials began testing the six machines ? four for election-day ballots, two on loan from Election Systems & Software to count absentee ballots ? and found that two were not correctly matching results.

That came as a surprise, Shively said, because all were tested late last week and performed well.

A decision was made not to use the two broken machines. Testing continued for another couple hours, pushing back the normal start time for counting ballots and leaving the Election Commission with two, instead of four, machines to count election-day ballots.

Around 8 p.m., according to Shively, he got assurance from officials with Election Systems & Software that it was acceptable to switch use of the two machines on loan from the company to counting regular, instead of just absentee, ballots. The move boosted the number of machines tabulating election-day ballots and quickened the vote-counting pace.

From about 10:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., the machines were purring along glitch-free, Shively said. "I thought, ?Boy, we're back in business,'" Shively said.

Then the two-ballot problem described by Shively began, plaguing almost all the machines, drastically slowing the count, and prompting Shively to rouse technicians in Omaha for a trip to Lincoln.

At no point Tuesday or early Wednesday did Shively publicly announce the problems. Rubin and other Democrats made a trip to Election Commission headquarters at 2:30 a.m. to look for answers.

"It was a mistake," Shively said of not alerting the public and candidates to the problems. "I probably should have done that."

Glitches with voting machines during high-turnout elections are not uncommon, said Patty Hansen, a Democrat who held Shively's job from 1991 to 1999 and is now election director of Coconino County, Ariz.

"When we had a problem, I let the people know," said Hansen, who praised Shively's competence as an election commissioner.

"I always aired my dirty laundry, because I believed the more upfront you can be, the more comfortable and secure people would be with the process."

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