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by Paul Peters  Missoula Independent, November 16, 2006
Communication breakdown

For a couple of hours the morning after Election Day, it looked as if not just Montana but Flathead County in particular was going to play an important role in deciding which party controls the U.S. Senate.

A Washington Post story that morning quoted Brock Lowrance, communications director for the Montana Republican Party, as saying that 500 votes had been damaged by Flathead voting machines, and that county election officials would be hand-counting those ballots. Considering that the Flathead went heavily for Sen. Conrad Burns, it was possible those votes could have thrown the incumbent into 2,000-vote recount range.

But subsequent queries to Flathead election workers about the damaged ballots produced only blank stares. No ballots, they said, had actually been damaged. There had been an apparent miscommunication between election officers and Lowrance, who did not return calls from the Independent.

That’s not to say that there were no problems. When election workers plugged memory cards from Flathead County electronic voting machines into computers, the computers tabulated all the county’s votes for just one candidate.

County Election Director Monica Eisenzimer says she felt more comfortable using the printouts to count the votes anyway, “especially with all the speculation about the machines.”

The voting machines in use in the Flathead, made by Omaha, Neb.-based Election Systems & Software (ES&S), are the only ones approved for use in Montana by the Secretary of State’s office.

Elsewhere, problems with ES&S machines were reported in one Arkansas county, where some precincts reported more votes than voters, and another where no votes were recorded in a mayoral race. In Florida, 18,000 votes were completely lost by ES&S machines.

ES&S machines also had problems in Yellowstone County, but those have been chalked up to user error.

Bowen Greenwood, spokesman for the Montana Secretary of State, says ES&S was chosen to provide Montana’s voting equipment in part because it was one of only two companies with technology allowing disabled voters to mark paper ballots.

Greenwood says Montana’s only reported problems were in Flathead and Yellowstone counties.

As of yet, he says, “No one has complained” about the overall effectiveness of the machines.

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