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Newfangled machines, old-fashioned voters lead to election night delays

The Daily Sentinel

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Across the state, voters reported problems with electronic voter machines Tuesday during the general election.

In Tarrant County, machines switched Democratic votes for governor to the Republican candidate, incumbent Rick Perry, and some machines left off ballot initiatives or entire races in Fort Worth, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. According to the Houston Chronicle, machines in Fort Bend County were delivered to the wrong precincts, delaying many local elections.

But in Nacogdoches County, the bulk of the election glitches stemmed not from the newfangled electronic machines but from the traditional paper ballots. And local elections were not decided until 11:15 on election night.

About 80 percent of all Nacogdoches County votes were recorded on paper ballots, and the state recommended that elections administrators examine every paper ballot to search for write-in votes that may not have been recorded by the scanners. After hand-examining the paper ballots, loading the computerized returns from the voting machines took less than a half-hour.

"The public just doesn't trust the equipment, said Debra Gaston, elections administrator. "That's why we had so many paper ballots."

On Election Day, eight voting machines malfunctioned, according to Todd Stallings, assistant elections administrator. One Douglass machine crashed while a voter was casting a ballot, and Stallings had to call the equipment's manufacturer, Hart InterCivic, to fix it.

Stallings said on Election Day he had planned to run accuracy tests , which are required by law, on the computer that records the tallies. The tests had to be done before any information was loaded off the electronic voting machines, and Stallings was the only worker certified to run the tests. But while he was out repairing machines and closing down two polling places, he had no time to run the tests.

Once the polls closed, area voters expected quick results for early voting numbers, but no reports were made until 11 p.m. When Stallings had completed his duties and returned to the courthouse annex, where the counting took place, it was 8:30. He ran all the tests on the computer and fixed a problem with a flash card a hard plastic disk containing the electronic ballots and he had to call the equipment manufacturer again. But after all the preparation, Stallings was able to run all the electronic ballots in about 20 minutes.

By the time Nacogdoches County election results came in, the local television news was off the air. The party hosted by county judge write-in candidate Harlon Brooks dissipated, and many waiting for results at the county Republican headquarters had gone home.

"To be honest, I hate that the tallies could not have come any faster, but everything went as it was supposed to," Stallings said.

With few employees working the election, Stallings said, he had to be out fixing machines instead of figuring the tallies and posting results.

"If we had more people who were willing to take the time and learn the process, it would help expedite the situation," Gaston said.

Gaston said the election was unique, because 41 percent of county voters turned out 11 percent above the state average and because they had to hand-count every paper ballot, it slowed the results. Though the results took longer than many had expected, Gaston said she is confident of the results.

"I can rest assured that these numbers are precisely correct," she said.

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