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Equipment bugs delay local vote count  (CA)

Kurtis Alexander   Santa Cruz Sentinel   08 February 2008

Inexperience with new voting equipment and a few quirks with the machines had county elections officials tabulating Super Tuesday's results later than they had anticipated.
Initial returns from Santa Cruz County were not computed until well after midnight, and vote counts were not disclosed to the public until after 2 a.m. later than in past elections and after most other counties across the state had posted substantial numbers of returns Tuesday.

Gail Pellerin, the county clerk and elections head, traced the delays to two hardware problems with Sequoia Voting Systems equipment that took time to recognize and address.

"The errors added drama to our evening but they weren't fatal," Pellerin said, noting that state law gives counties 28 days to count the ballots and certify the election.

But for those expecting to see results posted earlier on the county's Web site, where results are traditionally disclosed, Tuesday night's performance was not quick enough.

"Our job is to inform people," said Sentinel Editor Don Miller in his daily blog. "While few voters or election junkies are waiting around at 1 a.m. for final results, nevertheless we should be able to tell the story of what is happening with the vote count."

The Sentinel was unable to get local results from Tuesday's races into morning papers Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the fate of three school bonds hinged exclusively on the county's vote, while the county's tally played a lesser role in determining the outcome of seven state ballot initiatives and the national presidential primaries.

California's Secretary of State Office, which oversees county voting, said Santa Cruz County's results arrived during the acceptable window.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen "was pleased with how county elections offices handled Tuesday's elections and the high voter turnout," said spokeswoman Kate Folmar.

Voter turnout was in fact up in Santa Cruz County, though an official number was unknown Wednesday. Pellerin said local turnout would top what it had been in at least the last three presidential primaries.

The first major mishap at the county Elections Department occurred Tuesday after the polls closed when one of the memory cards that stores precinct data was discovered to contain incorrect numbers. The problem was traced to the machine that reads the cards, and ultimately meant rereading 11 cards and then reconfiguring the precinct data they contained.

The second major delay was attributed to the sole machine that checks for viruses on memory cards in the touch-screen voting machines.

"We underestimated how long it would take [to do the scanning]," Pellerin said, adding that next election there would be more than one machine on hand to serve that purpose.

Much of the county's voting equipment, made by Sequoia Voting Systems, was ordered in the wake of recent state laws requiring better voting access for the disabled. The new equipment was used for the first time in the November 2006 election.

"There's more moving parts and pieces," said Pellerin, noting the department would continue to train on the intricacies of the system.

A Sequoia representative was on hand Tuesday to help with the setbacks encountered, and Pellerin said she was ultimately pleased with how the department did its job.

The department posted the initial results of all precincts shortly after 2 a.m. The department's Web site, though, was not d during the course of the evening as it normally is, owing to the problems the office was experiencing.

A few other obstacles facing elections officials Tuesday included delays in getting the precinct totals to the county Elections Department after the polls closed and malfunctioning optical scanners at voting stations. But these problems were overcome, Pellerin said. No ballot shortages were reported locally, though this was a problem in other parts of the state.

During the next month, the county Elections Department will scan every ballot cast in Santa Cruz County a second time before the results are certified. The department still needs to count, for the first time, thousands of mail-in ballots received on Super Tuesday as well.

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