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Snafu briefly halts electronic voting in Denton County

03:26 PM CST on Tuesday, October 31, 2006

By BRANDON FORMBY / The Dallas Morning News

Rhonda Harris had done her research, chosen her candidates and Monday night headed to her city’s early voting polling location listed on the Denton County Web site.

But a snafu with a server for the county’s electronic voting system — and lack of a paper ballot for Ms. Harris’ precinct — made The Colony woman decide not to cast a ballot.

“I know I can go back tonight and vote, but I don’t think any outage is acceptable,” she said.

Ms. Harris’ complaint came on the same day that Tarrant County Democrats filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging electronic voting and its lack of a paper trail.

About 6:15 p.m. Monday, a county server that identifies and qualifies voters went down so election officials in The Colony gave voters paper ballots. But the paper ballots for Ms. Harris’ precinct weren’t available at The Colony Government Center, only at two locations in Carrollton.

Don Alexander, the county’s elections administrator, said that everything is now working correctly and no more problems are expected. Voters were casting ballots at The Colony location Tuesday morning.

He said the lack of paper ballots was due to an effort to cut election costs, adding that the county saved about $30,000 by sending paper ballots for specific precincts only to the early voting locations where a large number of voters from that precinct have historically shown up.

Mr. Alexander said the server that went down doesn’t tally votes. It simply verifies that those voting are registered and have not already voted at another location.

"All voting machines were operational at all times and were always available to be used for voting as needed. If the early voting computer failure deterred anyone from voting then I am sorry," Mr. Alexander said in an e-mail. "This is the first failure of the early voting computer which is only used for election management since its incorporation into the election process in 1999. The early voting computer is not involved in any way in the counting of votes. Its purpose is to manage voting qualification and history which prevents voter fraud and persons attempting to vote more than once."

So instead of voting Monday, Ms. Harris sat at the polls and waited for the system to come back up in The Colony, which she said didn’t happen by 7 p.m.

Holly Rademaker, the lead clerk for early voting in The Colony, said officials there couldn’t get things working properly.

“The whole system went down and we had to go to the old-fashioned version of paper ballots,” she said. “Our server went down and we had no way to verify.”

Ms. Harris, who was recently appointed as her precinct’s Democratic chair, still plans to cast her ballot. But she can’t help but wonder if a similar situation would sour others from voting altogether.

“It may not seem like a big deal at the time, but how many outages and how many voters turned away is acceptable?” she said. “Some people don’t have the circumstance where they can go back.”

And it has shaken her assurance in electronic voting.

“It also makes you wonder if you vote electronically, is it going to count your vote?” she said. “To me it undermines your confidence.”

Karen Bledsoe, the alternate election judge for The Colony location, said Ms. Harris was the only person who couldn’t vote there because of the computer problems. She said she’s never seen a problem since the county started using electronic voting equipment. And Monday’s glitch hasn’t made her doubt electronic voting reliability.

“Overall, we’ve been very pleased with it,” she said.

There have been questions in other counties about electronic voting.

The Tarrant County Democratic Party filed suit against the Texas secretary of state claiming the county’s electronic voting machines violate federal law and calling on the voting system to adopt a verifiable paper trail.

The lawsuit filed Monday in federal court in Austin asks the county election system to adopt a method for producing paper ballots in time for the Nov. 7 election.

The suit charges that Tarrant County violates the Texas Election Code, the Help America Vote Act, and the first and fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution because it doesn’t have a backup paper trail that voters can use to check their vote when casting an electronic ballot.

Scott Haywood, a spokesman for Secretary of State Roger Williams, said the suit is without merit.

Texas doesn’t require a verifiable paper trail, and the secretary of state’s office, which must approve election equipment, has not approved any paper-trail systems.

Steve Raborn, election administrator for Tarrant County, said it would be impossible for the county to install a paper trail system by next week’s election.

He said the county’s voting machines store an image of every ballot cast, which can then be printed and manually recounted. Voters continue to have the option of casting paper ballots, officials said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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