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Computer glitch eyed in vote woes

County to recheck all machines
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 11/10/06


TOMS RIVER Ocean County election officials will recheck data cartridges from all 758 digital voting machines used in Tuesday's election, after they learned that votes from a single machine in Barnegat were counted twice and some were also added to vote totals for the U.S. Senate, county freeholder and county sheriff races in Lakewood.

At an emergency meeting Thursday, the county Board of Elections asked for help from the state Attorney General's Office to obtain a court order so all machine cartridges and can be reread and checked against Tuesday night's countywide results. The error didn't affect any election outcomes, said George Gilmore, chairman of the Board of Elections.

However provided no other errors are uncovered it does increase the margin of victory slightly for the three Republican candidates for Township Committee in Barnegat. According to the unofficial tally, 11 votes separate Republican incumbent Al Cirulli from Democratic challenger Dolores Coulter instead of 6, and 18 separate Republican John Novak from challenger Dorothy Ryan instead of 7. Republican incumbent Jeff Melchiondo was the top vote-getter and was 60 votes ahead of Coulter. Those unofficial tallies exclude provisional ballots.

"I think this is a serious issue that the county cannot, and I'm sure will not, let go," Coulter said, adding she was troubled the Barnegat machine affected tallies in Lakewood.

Election officials uncovered a doubling of all votes cast on the Barnegat machine and later found that an overcount of some 75 votes for the U.S. Senate, county free-holder and sheriff races had been carried over by the computer system into tallies from Lakewood. The problems, they said, all stemmed from a fault in computer software provided by Sequoia Voting Systems, the Oakland, Calif.-based supplier of voting machines for Ocean County.

The board's decision "could be seen as overreaction," Gilmore, leader of the county's Republican organization, said at the meeting. But he added it was important to go public with details of the problem, considering widespread national skepticism over the reliability and security of digital voting systems.

Several municipal races were very tight in Ocean County Barnegat, Lavallette, Seaside Park, South Toms River and Lakewood so election officials say they are anxious to offer a transparent process when rereading the machine cartridges. That will tentatively start at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the county's voting machine warehouse on Chestnut Street here, they said.

"We're working with them to sort through it," said Michelle Shafer, a vice president and spokeswoman for Sequoia. "The machines have redundant areas for vote storage . . . These machines are very auditable."

Sequoia supplies machines for 19 of New Jersey's 21 counties, Shafer said. There have been occasional minor problems "We have over 100,000 units in the field" but the company has not received any other complaints like Ocean's problem this week, she said.

County workers on Wednesday used paper vote total readouts from the machines to make sure there were not any other obvious discrepancies from Tuesday's polling, and it appears the problem was confined to the Barnegat and Lakewood tallies, said Robert F. Giles, a supervisor with the Board of Elections.

The first hint of a problem surfaced late Tuesday night, when county Clerk Carl W. Block noticed Barnegat's final tally had changed slightly on a computer screen. On Wednesday, Barnegat Township Clerk Veronica E. Jasina called to inquire about the total, reporting that her spreadsheet tally showed a discrepancy, Gilmore said.

County board workers retrieved printout tapes from the machines used in Barnegat, "and when they did that, they found the clerk's spreadsheet was correct," Gilmore said. As the investigation progressed, workers discovered the appearance of Barnegat votes in the Lakewood tally, he said.

Block said he suspects there's a glitch deep in the Sequoia computer code. The company's software package was d this year to make the system compatible with audio devices, required by federal law to help blind and hearing-impaired voters, Block said.

In Barnegat, after subtracting the over count, it appears Republican incumbents Jeff Melchiondo and Al Cirulli received 2,997 and 2,948 votes, respectively, in their quest for full terms and Novak received 3,010 votes in his run for an unexpired term. Coulter and fellow Democrat Rose Jackson received 2,937 and 2,874 votes, respectively, in their run for full terms while Ryan received 2,992 votes in her run for the unexpired term. Independent candidate Matt Lightbody received 274 votes in his run for a full term.

Coulter said the approximately 20 provisional ballots cast in the Barnegat election remain to be counted and could potentially affect the outcome. The Democrats still plan to push for a recount if they are on the losing end, she added.

Melchiondo, however, said he was confident his party will ultimately be victorious.

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