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Vote count oops   (KS)

Barbara Hollingsworth    The Topeka Capital-Journal   07 August 2008

Thousands of uncounted Shawnee County ballots on Wednesday caused stomachs to churn and defeated candidates to cling to hope.

But in the end, no elections were overturned once 4,446 votes that accidentally went untallied Tuesday night were added to vote totals. The votes, amounting to 14 percent of all ballots cast in Shawnee County, came from 42 of 198 precincts.
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Election commissioner Elizabeth Ensley attributed the problems to human error but refused to put the blame on her staff.

"I am responsible for everything going on in the office," she said. "There was an error last night. I can assure you it won't happen again."

Ensley first noticed an irregularity after preliminary results were reported late Tuesday. At the end of election nights, Ensley said reports are printed so election workers can begin checking data the next morning work that can take a few days.

As she looked at the reports late Tuesday, Ensley noticed a particularly low turnout in a Rossville precinct.

"It was very, very low," she said. "Just a few votes. I said we need to look at this more closely. My staff took that cue from me and focused in on this very early this morning."

Already, Ensley had been surprised when voter turnout came in at 26 percent in the county. During the day, checks with precincts had left her expecting a turnout of 30 percent. With all the vote tabulated Wednesday, voter turnout in Shawnee County climbed to 30.6 percent.

The problem came with ballots cast on paper and then tabulated using optical scan equipment. Votes cast on touch-screen computers were counted.

The optical scan equipment actually properly counted ballots. However, staff members had mistakenly entered results from 43 federal service ballots ballots that go to American citizens or military personnel living out of the country in the wrong spot.

The information was placed in a column where data from ballots counted with optical scan machines normally is recorded.

So when data from the optical scan machines was uploaded to computers Tuesday night, the data in precincts where federal service ballots were cast wasn't uploaded. The system thought it already had the data.

"I wish I could blame it on the equipment," Ensley said. "I cannot."

Ensley said she and her staff will be working on additional checks to ensure problems don't occur in the future. She said she would see if additional reports are available that would allow similar mistakes to be discovered sooner.

"Anytime we do any kind of hand entry on things we have to be exceedingly careful," she said.

Already, the election office has both Democrats and Republicans watch as data is entered.

Ensley's afternoon news conference on the mistakes was packed with reporters from Topeka, Lawrence and the Kansas City area. Also watching was Christian Morgan, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party.

"It's really no big deal, but I'm glad it happened in August and not in November," he said. "I would hate to see the firestorm that would happen in November when Lynn Jenkins beats Nancy Boyda."

Jenkins saw her slim lead over Jim Ryun in the Republican primary for the 2nd Congressional District seat increase with the final numbers. She is seeking to unseat Boyda, a Democrat, and claim the spot that Ryun once occupied.

Pat Leopold, campaign manager for Jenkins, said Jenkins' supporters had believed her lead would hold out because she had done well against Ryun in Shawnee County.

Still, the unknown brought anxiety.

"It's made the day a little bit more difficult on the old stomach," he said. "What should have been a great day, it's had a little hiccup, but it's still a great day."

News of uncounted ballots had renewed hope in Parrish Stevens that he still could have won the Republican primary for the Shawnee County Commission.

"I'm obviously within striking range," he said as he waited at the Shawnee County Election Office for final numbers Wednesday afternoon.

He had asked supporters to leave their campaign signs in their yards for a few more hours, but the final returns weren't enough to change results. He took the news in stride.

Some of the toughest comments about the mistake came from Ensley.

"I've just been horrified that this happened," she said.

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