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Faulty keyboard leads to erroneous vote result in Salem  (NH)

Gordon Fraser   The Eagle-Tribune    13 March 2008

SALEM In Town Clerk Barbara Lessard's 25th and final Town Meeting election Tuesday, officials didn't count 859 votes and announced the school district budget had failed when voters had actually approved it.

The reason for the confusion? A single key on a faulty computer keyboard.

Lessard said yesterday morning the school district's proposed $53.5 million budget was, indeed, approved, 2,665 to 2,212, even though Moderator Chuck Morse had announced Tuesday night the measure failed, 2,212 to 2,093.

While Tuesday night's error was corrected within 12 hours, it serves as a reminder that voting systems in the state are not foolproof.

The problem stems from the way Salem votes are calculated.

Voters cast ballots in six areas of town, and each ballot is run through one of six Diebold AccuVote optical scanners. Those machines print out what looks like a store receipt, outlining the results from each polling place.

Information from each receipt is then typed into a computer spreadsheet by election workers. The spreadsheet adds up the totals and produces the final result.

Last night, the computer with the spreadsheet had a faulty keyboard, which kept inputting the number six sometimes hundreds of times.

"I thought I was losing my mind," Lessard said, explaining that the sixes appeared without warning and filled the screen.

Although the town clerk was able to erase all of the sixes and replace the faulty keyboard with a functioning one, two numbers from the North Salem School were lost in the process. Lessard didn't catch the problem until she was going through the voting results by hand yesterday morning.

One lost number was 572 the number of people at the North Salem School who voted in favor of the school budget.

The other number, 287, represented those at North Salem who voted against the town operating budget. The addition of those people voting against the town budget didn't affect the final result, though, and the town budget still passed.

Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan said there are no rules against using a spreadsheet to determine a final voting result. He said there are no easy ways to tally votes from different precincts.

"I don't think there's anything in the statute to prohibit the use of a spreadsheet, just like there's nothing in the statute to prohibit the use of a hand-held calculator," Scanlan said.

But, he said, it's ultimately the responsibility of the town moderator to make sure the results are accurate.

Salem Town Manager Jonathan Sistare, who started in October and witnessed his first Salem election Tuesday night, said he would like to take a closer look at the way votes from each of the six polling places are added together.

"I need to look into it," Sistare said. "Someone mentioned to me last night that there's a way to download the data directly from the voting machines directly to a computer."

As for the school district, the proposed budget's unexpected success yesterday morning is a mixed blessing. The default budget which officials legally must use if the proposed budget fails is actually $23,000 more than the budget voters approved.

School officials made a concerted effort to keep this year's proposed budget low in order to get support for a high school renovation, which voters rejected.

But Superintendent Michael Delahanty said he was encouraged by the proposed budget's success, even if it means the district loses $23,000.

"I see it as emotionally affirming because I would much rather have a proposal that we made and that was approved by the Budget Committee pass the voters," he said. "It's just encouraging for me to know the proposal we had was supported by the community."

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