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Glitches in system slowed vote count  (CA)

Nicole C. Brambila The Desert Sun February 7, 2008

The $500,000 ballot-counting system bought by the Riverside County Registrar three months ago malfunctioned on election night, delaying results from Tuesday's presidential primary.
Touted at the time of the buy as having the ability to count 400 ballots a minute each, the county's six Sequoia Voting Systems machines actually ran at a tenth the advertised speed.

The counters - which required one staff person to feed ballots into the machine and another to catch the ballots as they flew out - took more than 12 hours to count 182,000 ballots.

At some point in the middle of the night, Sequoia sent a technician to fix two of the machines.

"The ballots and the scanners need to work together," said Michelle M. Shafer, a Sequoia Voting Systems spokeswoman.

"The slowness of the machines is due to the printing problems Riverside experienced with the vendor."

At least 60,000 of the county's 250,000 absentee-ballots were deemed defective, in many cases torn.

San Bernardino, Shafer said, experienced similar problems.

Riverside County Registrar of Voters Barbara Dunmore did not return a phone call seeking comment Wednesday.

In October, supervisors approved the $562,000 purchase of six counters to replace the county's antiquated absentee ballot-counting system after Sequoia refused to lease them.

Riverside County Supervisor Roy Wilson, who has refused to spend any more money on Sequoia equipment, said he anticipates a report from Dunmore by the end of the month.

"I'd be curious to find out why brand-new equipment malfunctioned," he said Wednesday. "It shouldn't have failed on its first time out."

This was the first paper election in the county since 1999.

California was one of 22 states that held contests on Super Tuesday, the state's earliest primary election. Super Tuesday also marked a return to paper ballots after a security review by Secretary of State Debra Bowen in August that assessed whether the state's electronic voting machines were susceptible to hacking.

Election officials statewide had expected slower results Tuesday.

"Most counties were on pace with past elections when it came to the speed of election results," said Nicole Winger, a Secretary of State spokeswoman. "Riverside and San Bernardino (counties) were two of the last."

County election officials have 28 days to finalize election results with the Secretary of State's office.

Voting problems have plagued the Riverside County Registrar of Voters for several elections, culminating in an independent investigation last year into irregularities that included long lines at the polls, machine malfunctions and, in some races, a weeks-long wait for results.

Before Florida's hanging chads spurred nationwide election reform, Riverside County was among the first in the nation to switch to an electronic voting system in 2000. The county converted to electronic voting machines to speed up election results and save taxpayers about $500,000 on ballot costs.

But that move has been costly.

Riverside County has twice bought more than 3,500 electronic voting machines to meet California election law costing taxpayers more than $27 million, nearing what San Diego County, with twice as many voters, has spent.

Riverside County can now only use about 600 of its machines, one per precinct, for disabled voters.

For the first time, the registrar's office offered live video streaming of the vote count Tuesday. A handful of voters visited the registrar's office in Moreno Valley to watch, including county Supervisor Marion Ashley, who left before the count, which started two hours after the polls closed.

Ashley could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Election advocates blasted Dunmore for not working out the glitches in a trial run with smaller elections held in November.

"They could have been tested," said Tom Courbat, executive director of SAVE R VOTE, a countywide election watchdog group formed two years ago.

"We think that that's irresponsible."

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