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Electronic voting off to rocky start

by MELINDA W. BIGELOW, Press Argus-Courier Staff
Monday, November 13, 2006 9:31 AM CST

Unexpected problems with the new electronic voting machines and pressure to open the polls early started Tuesday's election off to a bad start.

The chaos did not end until Thursday morning when a deputy county clerk discovered votes from the iVotronic voting machines of Van Buren's Precinct 1-1 were not included in the tally presumably concluded about 4 p.m. Wednesday.

The oversight was noted when the precinct printouts were being proofed to ensure the number of marks made by the hand ballot count and the Personal Electronic Ballot (PEB) votes totaled the precinct totals. There were no iVotronic votes included.

The three-member Crawford County Election Commission meets at 9 a.m. Monday to review the election woes and decide whether to recount the nearly 2,000 paper ballots that were counted by hand.

Three races, Van Buren city attorney, District 10 justice of the peace and Mulberry alderman Ward 2, Postion 1, were decided by 22 or fewer votes.

Van Buren City Attorney Candice Settle said late Thursday night she will not make a decision on whether to pursue other action until after votes are recounted.

"Whatever decision I and my family make will be what we decide is best for Van Buren. The best decision, financially, for my family, would be to go into private practice but I do not want the city to suffer because of misrepresentation and mistakes," she said.

Twenty votes separated the outcome of the District 10 JP race with two votes difference between Charlotte Stapp and Larry Starkey on the Mulberry City Council.

Hand-counting the ballots was necessary after Electronic Systems & Software, the state's election service company, provided the wrong ballot format to PAC Printers. The Van Buren print shop has printed Crawford County ballots for many years, said Crawford County Clerk Patti Hill, who prefers to have the ballots printed locally to keep business within Crawford County. The format could not be read by the electronic tabulator.

The laborious, time-consuming process of one person verbally calling off names of the candidates receiving a vote with another person of the opposing political party marking a line to denote the vote on a tally sheet continued until 1:40 a.m. Wednesday. Due to fatigue of the counting crew, the process was halted and resumed in the county clerk's vault at 10 a.m. Wednesday. The process continued until mid-afternoon Wednesday.

All election materials, the PEBs, paper ballots, provisional and absentee ballots, were secured Tuesday night in a locked closet in Hill's office. The office was locked. Only Hill and her staff have keys to the county clerk's office, she said. The courthouse also was secured.

"When we process PEBs, we compare PEBs to the list of voters to printouts of the polling site before the PEB is loaded on the computer. On the Van Buren 1-1 precinct, we did not have the totals tape from the precinct Tuesday night. That is a safeguard, a checks and balance procedure. On the PEB, we put it to the side. The problem was the poll workers put the total with the provisional envelopes," said deputy clerk Marcy Smallwood who is trained on iVotronic ballots.

Concerns over integrity of the Van Buren 1-1 PEB was checked by Crawford County Election Commissioner Bruce Coleman Thursday. Coleman, accompanied by a member of the media, re-collected data from the supervisor's PEB for all four machines used at the Van Buren Municipal Complex polling site to cross-reference the PEB data stored in Hill's office. They were identical.

Data from all iVotronics used at a precinct is collected after the last person votes. To ensure safeguards, the data is downloaded onto three PEBs two supervisors and the one downloaded onto a computer for counting. All iVotronics have serial numbers. Information printed on paper tally rolls, similar to adding machine tape, includes votes cast, serial numbers and time-stamps when the machine is opened and closed. One printout goes to the Election Commission, one to the county clerk's office with the third counted.

Coleman, a Republican who serves with Democrats Ken Redding and chairman Kenneth Chitwood on the commission, said the trio will address complaints lodged about improprieties and also try to dispel rumors.

"There were some problems. We are aware of that. I think there were some who voted paper ballots when they did not need to. There is always education and there will be more training and hopefully with each session poll workers will understand it better," he said.

The first election using election voting equipment was hampered by a media report the polls opened at 7 a.m. instead of the opening time of 7:30.

"There were people banging on the doors at 7, demanding to be allowed to exercise their constitutional right. The election workers workers don't get there until 7 and they weren't ready. Some of them got rattled," said Hill. "There was an unauthorized pollwatcher at Rena Church of Christ that caused some confusion."

Other glitches included difficulty loading the paper into the machines.

Dead electrical outlets at some polling precincts caused election workers to give out paper ballots while at other precincts, voters were given a choice to vote electronically or use a traditional paper ballot.

"There should not have been any paper ballots used. We voted almost 3,500 people here in this office in two weeks and never used a paper ballot. We also had people waiting in line to vote," said an employee in the county clerk's office.

Citizen complaints regarding voting in mixed city-county precints prompted Coleman to explain the voter has the responsibility to scrutenize their ballot and request the correct ballot.

"If they are given a paper ballot or electronic ballot, they need to check it out. If it is a paper ballot, you can ask for the correct ballot. Once the ballot is voted and placed in the ballot box, there is nothing you can do. It is a voted ballot. But if the ballot is voted and given back to the election official in exchange for the correct ballot, it is marked as a spoil," he said regarding a husband/wife reportedly being given one county and the other a city ballot although they live in the same house.

Allegations of citizens voting past 7:30 p.m. could be attributed to them being in line to vote at 7:30 but having to wait, Coleman said.

"We have told the poll workers to use a cell phone for the correct time because that time is accurate. The voting machine will tell the poll workers that it is past 7:30 and they have to override it," he said.

Although out-of-country military absentee ballots are usually counted on the tenth day after the election, the ballots that have been received by Monday may be counted then.

"There is no need to count one or two at a time. We try to limit our meetings because we are paid when we meet. The military absentee and provisional ballots may be counted Monday since we will be meeting anyway. I think there are only three Van Buren provisional ballots. Since we are going to meet Monday those ballots and the provisonal ballots may be counted then," said Coleman.

A provisional ballot is voted when a person shows up at a polling site, and is not listed on the voting roster. The person could have recently registered and not been added, or voted in the wrong precinct. Each provisional ballot is placed in a separate envelope and scrutenized by the Election Commission for validity before being accepted or rejected.

The election will be certified after the mail arrives on Friday, Nov. 17 and the military votes counted.

"If there are improprieties in this election or any election, we want to know about it," Coleman said.

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