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Congressional race, computer problems put Effingham in spotlight
Coastal Empire | Effingham | Local News
Don Lowery | Friday, November 10, 2006 at 12:30 am

Electronic voting machine malfunction produces nail-biting delay in totaling ballots for Burns, Barrow

SPRINGFIELD - Eyes across America zeroed in on Effingham County late Tuesday and Wednesday as computerized voting machines sputtered, stopped, then finally pumped out balloting results.

A combination of high-tech glitches and national politics ended when state computer experts slowly extracted vote tallies crucial to the battle for control of Congress on Wednesday afternoon.

At the time, Democratic incumbent Rep. John Barrow of Savannah was locked in a tight contest for the 12th Congressional District with Republican challenger Max Burns of Sylvania.

"We went through a few test runs before the election and everything worked fine," said Judy Suhor, Effingham elections assistant superintendent. "Then when it really matters, this happens."

Similar computer problems are common - but most not as serious - as the ones in Effingham, state elections officials said.

"This happened in a few other counties (Tuesday) night," said Michael Barnes, assistant director for the Center for Elections at Kennesaw State University. "Most of the problems were resolved with technical support we provided by telephone."

New equipment supplied by the Secretary of State's office arrived at the Effingham County Courthouse Wednesday morning, along with Barnes and an assistant. After connecting the new machine in the Probate Court office, the computer technicians worked their way around Effingham's malfunctioning machinery.

A process Barnes initially said would take about 30 minutes continued for hours, ending with the transmission of Effingham results to the Secretary of State's office about 3:30 p.m.

Effingham election officials were recovering Thursday while provisional votes were being reviewed by the state, the final step in election reporting.

As of 10:30 a.m. Thursday, Barrow was leading Burns 70,913-69,861.

Burns has not conceded, and indicated he'll expect a re-count following the close race.

Tuesday's voting marked the third consecutive Effingham election in which reporting was delayed by computer problems.

The electronic breakdown did not change results of the balloting on more than 100 machines at 21 precincts around Effingham, Suhor said.

County officials noticed a slower-than-usual pace in the computer transmissions from the precincts to a central machine at the Courthouse shortly after 7 p.m. Tuesday. Tabulating computers at each precinct collect information from several voting machines at their location, then use a modem and special telephone line to transmit totals to the central computer at the probate office.

Computers continued to slow as several precincts transmitted results until about 9 p.m., when the central computer shut down.

Suhor immediately called technicians at Kennesaw and the Secretary of State's office. Several efforts to restart the process failed.

Other staffers started manually tabulating vote totals while efforts to fix the main computer continued.

Results of a local county commission and school board race were tabulated first. Totals for the Burns-Barrow race were next.

Officials emphasized results were tentative and still could not be sent to the Secretary of State's office because of the computer problems.

Suhor remained at the courthouse working on the problem until about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, then returned about 5 a.m.

Effingham Democrat and Republican officials stayed for most of the process. State officials told Effingham officials Wednesday morning that Barnes and new equipment were en route.

Details about the cause and nature of the computer failures from state experts were pending Thursday.

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