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Voters find problems at the polls
Gallup Independent, November 3, 2006, by Zsombor Peter

GALLUP The state's move from touch-screen voting machines to paper ballots earlier this year was supposed to help restore some voter confidence in the local election process.

It hasn't worked on everyone.

If Ron Hickman had any faith in the system before, it did not survive his ordeal at the McKinley County Courthouse Wednesday afternoon.

"I don't have any confidence in it whatsoever," he said. "It was just like a circus."

Hickman was heading out of town Thursday; so, he thought he'd swing by the courthouse to cast an early ballot. But the problems started as soon as he stepped inside. For one thing, he could find no instructions posted anywhere.

"There were do directions posted; I didn't know what to do," he said.

Finally, another voter helped him out. Once in line, Hickman said, the ballot printing machine started printing one side of the ballots upside down.

That's until it stopped printing altogether. According to Hickman, the ballots simply stopped coming. After more than 20 minutes in line, he finally gave up and left in frustration, but not until watching four others in the line behind him do the same.

"It was total chaos," Hickman said. "Nobody seemed to know what was going on."

The ballot printing machines didn't exactly stop, Rick Palochak said, they just slowed down.

According to Palochak, the county's Elections Bureau director, the problem lay with the electronic server in Santa Fe feeding the early voting centers across the state their voter data. The machines started slowing down around 2 p.m., he said, and were back to business as usual by 2:45.

A message left with the Secretary of State's Bureau of Elections Thursday afternoon was not returned.

"It did slow things down. I'm not going to deny that," Palochak said. "I know the lines did get a little backed up, but we did continue."

For all the delays, Palochak insisted, the machines never came to a complete stop. He apologized even though a misbehaving server in Santa Fe is beyond his control but was still surprised that local voters would give up after 20-plus minutes when their Albuquerque counterparts sometimes stand in line for over an hour to cast their ballots.

But local voters aren't just having trouble at the polls. Five completed absentee ballots mistakenly made their way to The Independent last week instead of the county clerk, despite being clearly labeled with the courthouse's address.

Palochak said all five ballots eventually made it to the county. But a handful of locals have called The Independent about also receiving other people's absentee ballots. The U.S. Postal Service has offered no explanation and said it would be investigating the incidents.

Like most counties across the country, McKinley County and other counties in New Mexico is using an optical scan system in this election, according to Election Data Services, a system that relies on a machine to recognize ovals filled in by the voter. Electronic voting is the second most popular system. And despite a law Congress passed four years ago ordering states to abandon the punch cards that mired the 2000 national elections, a handful of counties all in Idaho use them still.

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