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Three counties wrestled with voting miscues

Thursday, November 09, 2006

By Mike Anderson

Tribune-Herald staff writer

At least three Central Texas counties hit snags in the voting process Tuesday night, but apparently none of the problems were related to newly required voting machines rolled out last year.

Most area counties, including McLennan County, reported the election went off with little disruption. But Falls, Hill and Bosque counties reported glitches either with counting votes or long waits for residents wishing to cast ballots.

The problems apparently were not caused by electronic voting machines that went into use in every Texas county last year. The machines were the result of the Help America Vote Act of 2002, in which Congress mandated that every election site across the country offer machines designed to help elderly, disabled and blind residents vote.

A shortage of paper ballots apparently was the culprit behind long lines that kept voters waiting at one Falls County polling place.

Reported lines of more than 100 people greeted those trying to cast their votes at the Chilton Volunteer Fire Department.

According to Falls County Clerk Frances Braswell, more voters than expected showed up at the polling place. During the afternoon they had gone through the roughly 200 paper ballots. Braswell estimated the line at 30 people.

Because of the way the counting machine is designed, county officials could not make additional paper ballots to use, so voters had to wait to use the polling place’s one electronic voting machine, Braswell said.

Falls County resident Diane Rogers said she waited in line to vote for a couple of hours before going home at 7:30 p.m. Earlier, she took her disabled husband home without voting because he could no longer wait in line. When she gave up for the night, Rogers said she counted 30 people in front of her and more than 100 behind.

“I’m pretty angry,” Rogers said. “This area is where the Trans-Texas Corridor is going to go through, and we wanted to vote. I know of at least 12 people who left without voting.”

Julie deGraffenried, a Baylor University history professor and Falls County resident, said she waited three hours to vote at the polling place.

“I was proud that most people walked in and saw all the people waiting, but then they stayed to vote anyway,” deGraffenried said. “Of course, some people simply were not able to stay, but I thought it was tremendous those who could stay did.”

Braswell said she did not know when voting ended at the polling site, but the ballot box arrived at election headquarters in Marlin at 11:30 p.m.

Falls County Judge Tom Sehon said the county will make sure the problem is not repeated next election. Sehon said the county will buy at least one more electronic voting machine and will make sure plenty of paper ballots are available for the next election.

“We apologize to the voters waiting to exercise their constitutional right to vote, for all the frustration and disappointment they underwent,” Sehon said.

Votes counted twice

In Bosque County, early votes apparently were counted twice in all races. Bosque County Clerk Betty Spitzer Outlaw said human error resulted in about 1,300 duplicate votes being recorded in numbers that were sent to the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.

“It wasn’t the (counting) machine,” Outlaw said Wednesday. “We had to start over a couple of times, and the person didn’t clear out the machine before restarting. We didn’t figure it out until this morning.”

Outlaw said the votes were counted twice across the board, so even though the totals increased for each candidate, their percentage of the votes was not affected. Outlaw said late Wednesday that the Secretary of State’s Office had given the county approval to fix the discrepancy when the county officially canvasses the votes in coming weeks. Officials with the state office could not confirm they approved the recount.

The overcount included a tight race for district clerk in which Democratic incumbent Sandra Woosley apparently topped Republican challenger Juanita Miller by only a 1.7 percent margin.

Although Miller could not be reached for comment Wednesday, Bosque County Republican Party Chairman Helen Dozier said she does not believe a recount would change the election’s outcome.

Hill County also had problems involving the person operating the vote-counting machine, said Patsy Damschen, county elections administrator. Damschen said the operator could not get votes from paper ballots to combine with votes submitted electronically, so vote totals were delayed late into the night.

“It was made worse because the (counting machine’s) operator actually worked for the company that sold us the machine,” Damschen said.

“We are going to take it up with the company,” she added.

Damschen said the county also had problems with the machine during its first use in a 2005 election. In that case, election officials ultimately totaled votes by hand, she said.

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