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Voting problems   (AR)

Warren Watkins   The Daily Citizen    22 May 2008

Primary election results were delayed and disputed Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning after no voting machines functioned properly at any of the 32 White County voting sites Tuesday.

By late Wednesday night, a set of revised unofficial vote totals revealed Mark Derrick - deemed the winner earlier Wednesday - had actually lost to Tom Hughes in the race for circuit judge, district 17.

A programming error with time settings caused a domino effect of further complications, names were left off ballots and a vote-counting machine failed. Candidates, citizens and supporters waited in the second floor courtroom of the White County courthouse until 1 a.m. to get a hard copy of the unofficial results. No preliminary results were announced during the night and little if any explanations were provided as to the delay.

White County Election Commission Chairman Diane Thomas pointed to human error as the cause of most of the confusion, with the absence of election coordinator Leslie Bellamy, who took maternity leave before completing programming for the primary.

In 2006, $18 million was spent in Arkansas obtaining the iVotronic electronic voting machines from Election Systems & Software (ES&S), producer of the iVotronic voting machines used by the county. At the time, Ralph Burns with the Secretary of State's Public Education Office said the machines were bought in reaction to the controversial presidential election of 2000.

“Due to the fiasco in the 2000 elections, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002,” Burns said when the machines came to White County in 2006, explaining that HAVA would use technology to improve the election process.

Because the machines store votes in five internal locations and provide a paper print-out, no votes were lost in Tuesday's vote, Thomas said, but tabulating the votes became a problem.

The time on the voting machines was set one hour later than real time.

“At 7:30 p.m., when we started closing the machines, the machine had 6:30 p.m. on it, so the machine was asking, ‘Do you want to close this machine early?' and we had to say, ‘Yes,'” Thomas said.

To close the machines early, passwords were needed by technicians at poll sites, a part of the machines' security system to avoid voter fraud. Each machine interfaces with a Programmable Electronic Ballot (PEB) and flash cards. Under ideal conditions, the votes are conveyed on those devices on the election night, allowing for quick download and tabulation, while the machines are scheduled to be picked up the next day by workers in trucks designed to lift the suit-case size boxes and their heavy metal stands.

“The techs were calling for the passwords and we were walking them through that,” Thomas said. “Several of them did it with no problem, but some of them either didn't put the correct PEB in to close it or took it out too soon or did something and didn't follow the instructions on the screen.”

Poll workers were told to load entire machines into vehicles to transport them to the courthouse, and by 10 p.m. the first floor hallway contained dozens of machines being processed manually by frantic election workers. Cell phone calls were made to poll workers asking why they had not arrived with the machines.

One elderly poll worker complained that she and three other elderly workers found the task daunting. Another group of poll workers from the western part of the county was almost to Searcy with the machines when they realized they had forgotten the flash cards.

The election used 32 polling sites throughout the county, plus an early voting site at the courthouse. Absentee ballots were sent as requested before the election and were part of the unofficial results, but the machine that tabulates the absentee ballots malfunctioned just as the polls closed at 7:30 p.m.

“I don't exactly what that problem is,” Thomas, who teaches kindergarten at Sidney Deener Elementary School in Searcy and like the other election commissioners is a volunteer, said of the absentee tabulator. “There is some kind of printer head or something that would not allow the ballots to be read.”

A worker with the state's Department of Information Systems was also contracted to fill in for Bellamy and was present during the vote count.

“We contracted with her to help us. She called ES&S and explained the situation to them and they said that was not a problem they could correct over the phone,” Thomas said of the absentee tabulator. “I guess we'll have to send that machine in to be repaired. What we did was to hand count all the absentee ballots.”

Thomas said Herbert Harris, who works for the Pulaski County Election Commission, was contracted to program the ballots after Bellamy's sudden departure.

“When Leslie's baby decided to come early, we had to hire someone to finish burning the media, so he came up and conducted the logic and accuracy testing,” Thomas said.

Thomas was asked why that testing did not reveal the wrong time set.

“I don't know, because that particular day when he did the logic and accuracy testing I was out of town,” Thomas said.

The other two election commissioners, Andy Williams and Cindy Barker, were at the accuracy testing, Thomas said.

“I was disappointed that we had as many problems as we did, but I still think a lot of it was because we had to hire outside help,” Thomas said. “If Leslie had been here, she's so smart she probably would have said, ‘Oh, this is what needs to be done.'”

Thomas said Harris was familiar with Pulaski County's voting system, but that it was different than that used by White County.

“It was a fair and accurate election, and we hope Leslie will be back at work soon and help us with the run-off in June and be ready for the general election,” Thomas said.

But Harris said the time change had to be done manually and individually on each machine, and that his notes show he wrote a program showing 19:30 as the closing time.

“It was actually messed up when I got there,” Harris said of the White County system. “I did my best to fix it. But either in my coding or in the iVotronics something was done wrong.”

ES&S has seen this problem before, Harris said.

“Daylight Savings Time should've been enabled as soon as the got the machines,” Harris said.

No one called Harris on election night to ask his advice, and he did not know about the problems until contacted by the Daily Citizen, Harris said.

Sample ballots made available at the courthouse Monday did not contain the names of Kensett races.

A 3,954-vote disparity was reported for ballots cast in the circuit judge's race (11,567) compared to the number of ballots cast in the district judge's race (7,613) concerning only White County voters.

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