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New statewide election possible
Board may reconsider ag commissioner race

By LYNN BONNER, Staff Writer   News Observer   17 November 2004

BEAUFORT Elections workers and reporters crammed themselves into a tiny storage room Tuesday and angled for their best views of a black metal box the size of a large briefcase.

And then they studied a three-word electronic message "Voter log full" that some in the room, deep down, had hoped wouldn't appear.

The warning message indicated that a computer tallying votes in coastal Carteret County had reached its limit at 3,016 electronic ballots.

If only someone had seen the same message a few weeks ago, when the votes actually mattered.

Tuesday's exercise was the latest in an investigation into an embarrassing, and possibly costly, voting problem. Because of problems with the county's voting machine, North Carolina may have to hold another statewide election to pick an agriculture commissioner.

During the two-week early voting period before the Nov. 2 election, Carteret's computer stopped recording voters' choices sometime during the seventh day, after the 3,005th person voted at the empty storefront next door to the county elections office. The machine lost the ballots of the 4,438 voters who followed.

Most of the votes lost were by registered Republicans. Republican candidates did well in Carteret County, with President Bush and U.S. Sen.-elect Richard Burr winning by wide margins.

The lost votes have brought unwelcome attention to the local elections board and caustic letters from elections officials to the voting machine manufacturer, UniLect Corp.

Jack Gerbel, president of the California company, said in response to the letters that the machine was set incorrectly to store too few votes. He called the problem "a mistake of omission" on the part of a UniLect software engineer. But he said that a warning message should have appeared on the machine when it was full.

"We can only hope and pray that these uncounted ballots will not make a difference in any race," Gerbel said in a letter Nov. 5 to Gary Bartlett, the state's elections director.

Costly redo at stake

The lapse could be the reason North Carolina has another statewide election, at a cost of $3 million plus.

The race for agriculture commissioner is close; Republican Steve Troxler led Democrat Britt Cobb by fewer than 3,000 votes statewide before a recount started. Troxler had a large lead in Carteret County based on the votes that were actually counted.

Both candidates are protesting the election outcome based on Carteret's lost votes.

Another contest that has been too close to call the race for state superintendent of public instruction is not expected to require a second election because the margin is greater than the number of votes lost in Carteret.

The candidates in both races are waiting on a statewide recount that is expected to be finished today.

Larry Leake, chairman of the state elections board, wasn't willing to say for certain this week that voters would be asked to go to the polls again. But he quoted a state law that seems to require an election if the lost votes could have determined the outcome.

A new election would need approval from four of the five members of the state board. The board is likely to consider the elections protests in about two weeks, Bartlett said.

Checking the machines

Bartlett spent all day Tuesday in Carteret County, waiting to see what would happen after the voting machine reached its limit. A half-dozen precinct workers signed statements after the election saying they didn't see a warning message. But Bartlett wanted more information for the report he is writing for the state elections board.

That set up the Tar Heel version of a hanging chad examination.

State Board of Elections staff, local elections officials and a television cameraman took turns speed voting on a dozen touch screens set up in a storage room at elections headquarters. The object was to fill ballots, not pick candidates.

"OK, it's time for Libertarians again," said Patsy Hardesty, Carteret's elections director, as she cast imaginary votes.

Brooks Garrett-Jones, a state board employee, was a touch-screen virtuoso, voting up to four ballots at a time.

"Getting on a roll like this, I guess I'm kind of like 'Rain Man,' " he said.

The voting slowed as the group neared 3,000 ballots. Then it was one at a time.

"OK, 3000," said Arnold "Bubba" Sanderson, a technician who works for the county. "Oh-two. Three." A state elections staffer took a photo to document the count.

3,004. Another photo.

"OK, we're at 3,005."

The counter hit 3,016 before the warning message came up. It went on and off, as Sanderson worked the control panel to accept more votes. If the machine worked during early voting as it did on Tuesday, the message could have appeared hundreds, if not thousands, of times.

But county elections workers said the message was hard to see. Sanderson said a precinct worker could easily miss it while setting the machines.

L.E. Pond, chairman of the local elections board, was ready with pages copied from the UniLect instruction manual. The warning appears mixed in with other commands, he said, with no explanation of what to do if it pops up.

He did not feel the board was responsible for the lost votes.

"No, not at all," Pond said.

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