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Who’s fault is it?

Thursday, May 22, 2008 6:10 PM CDT

Fingerpointing continues regarding

White County Primary election fiasco

By Warren Watkins

The Daily Citizen

Errors in the White Count primary election and judges’ election Tuesday were caused by malfunctions with the iVotronic voting machines produced by their maker, according to the contracted technician who programmed them and the contracted technician who helped download them on election night.

Four major mistakes and several other smaller miscues resulted in the first set of unofficial results being published at 1 a.m. Wednesday, more than five hours after the polls closed. A second set of unofficial results were published Wednesday at 9 p.m., over 25 hours after the polls closed.

The fiasco began when White County Election Coordinator Leslie Bellamy took emergency maternity leave and two contractors were hired by the election commission to prepare for the election.

The four areas of mistakes involved doubled voting results reported from the Programmable Electronic Ballots (PEBs), a time programming error, the failure of a vote-counting machine and names left off ballots.

Amanda Brown, spokesperson for Election Systems & Software (ES&S) of Omaha, Neb., and Herbert Harris, an independent contractor who also works for the Pulaski County Election Commission and who was hired by the White County Election Commission to program their machines, responded to questions concerning the mistakes.

ES&S said the problems were not related to hardware malfunction but were related to programming.

“Our agreement with White County is limited to hardware,” Brown said. “It does not include support services or programming.”

Harris said he made four trips to Searcy to perform the work for which he had been contracted and did not know how many total hours he had spent on the job. The election commission has not yet paid Harris, and Harris declined to say how much he had billed the commission for the contract work.

Doubled vote results

The first set of results published by the election commission showed a 3,954-vote disparity in the number of voters who participated in the 17th Judicial District circuit judge’s race in White County. Although the 17th Judicial District serves White and Prairie counties, that figure did not represent any votes cast in Prairie County, which were to be added later to determine the winner. According to that first report, 11,567 votes were cast in the circuit judge’s race in White County while in the district judge’s race, 7,613 votes were cast, according to the first report.

Disparities in vote counts between races are normally attributed to under-voting, where voters participate in one race but not in another, choosing to leave their ballot blank for a race or races. The size of the disparity, however, brought about a recount which showed 6,207 people actually voted in the circuit judge’s race, a error of 5,360 votes, or 86 percent above the number of votes cast.

White County Election Commission Chairman Dianne Thomas said the PEBs doubled the number of votes in the first count, a problem corrected by using the machines’ flash cards to find the correct total.

“ES&S was not responsible for the programming for the PEBs or the ballots,” Brown said. “Based on our understanding, this would be a programming error with the PEBs.”

But Harris said the commission hired another contractor who made a crucial mistake in reading the PEBs.

“They were advised by ES&S as to a different way to read them in, an optional way, the way ES&S always told us to do it in large elections,” Harris said. “In small elections you can do it in a different way. The other contractor did it the small election way and she should have done it in the large election way.”

Harris said machines used in early voting had every ballot style on them.

“The vote results get put into the precinct,” Harris said. “But there’s not an early vote site per se on the readouts. Early voting got dumped in there and election day votes got dumped on top of it.”

Time programming error

When poll workers began to close down the machines at 7:30 p.m., the time prescribed by law for polls to close, the machines balked en masse, with not a single machine operating correctly. A procedure designed to close machines down early was begun on an individual basis, but poll workers quickly became embroiled in a situation familiar to those who use computers: The machine and the operators started arguing, and the machines won.

Until the iVotronics were brought in entirety to the White County courthouse — not just their PEBs or their flash cards but the entire machine — votes could not be downloaded, causing the five-hour delay.

Harris pointed a finger at ES&S about the time error.

“The DST is not enabled on the iVotronics on the machine,” Harris said. “The commission didn’t know. It’s something the commission would have to be told by ES&S.”

But the White County machines had been used in previous elections over two years, and had not experienced problems due to Daylight Savings Time changes. Bellamy’s work was done before clocks sprung forward one hour this year, Harris claimed.

“When all the PEBs were burned, it had not turned Daylight Savings time yet,” Harris said.

Failure of vote-counting machine

Absentee ballots are designed to be read by a machine, allowing totals to be obtained quickly. However, on primary election night the county’s only unit capable of doing so malfunctioned. Provided by ES&S, the vote-counting machine’s failure resulted in a hand count of the absentee ballots both on election night and during the recount later Wednesday.

ES&S did not respond to questions about the malfunctioning machine by press time.

Names left off ballots

In a mistake seen as far back as ballots have been printed, a race was omitted from a ballot, a typographical error not caught in proofreading by the Election Commission.

In the Justice of the Peace race for District 2, Union Township voters were not allowed to vote at first, a mistake believed to have been rectified quickly on the day of the election when paper ballots were supplied to voters. Further investigation by Larry Fisher, who lost the race to Bobby Burns, is underway to see if enough votes were lost due to the mistake to make a difference. Only 14 votes separated the two candidates.

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