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Blame game: It's on   (KY)

Patrick Crowley and Cindy Schroeder   Cincinnati Enquirer   09 November 2008

The first whiff of trouble with some of Kenton County's voting machines came just minutes after the polls opened at 6 a.m. on Tuesday, Election Day.

Kenton County Clerk Rodney Eldridge took a call from a poll worker; there appeared to be a problem with straight-ticket voting on the so-called handicapped machines, voting devices called E-slate that were maintained by Lexington-based Harp Election Services.

Election Day problems are common. But it didn't take long for Eldridge to realize this wasn't minor.

What followed were two intense days of emergency measures, finger-pointing, court intervention, vote counting and recounting, immense pressure on Eldridge, Harp and the Kenton County Board of Elections and candidate consternation, all of which exposed flaws in the county's voting system.

After spending two days of laying the blame on the vendor and professing that he had done his job, by Friday, a clearly contrite Eldridge admitted mistakes were made and vowed to make changes.

"I take full responsibility for what happened," said Eldridge. "I can guarantee that in the next election in 2010, we won't have these problems."

By 8 a.m. Tuesday a steady stream of calls from voters and poll workers was coming into the clerk's office. Straight-ticket votes on the county's 84 E-slate machines were not tabulating in two statehouse races: The 23rd Senate District race between Sen. Jack Westwood, R-Crescent Springs, and Covington Democrat Kathy Groob, one of the most closely watched statehouse races in Kentucky; and the 69th House District contest between Rep. Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger, and Democrat Merrick Krey, also of Erlanger.

Park Hills resident Ted Kleymeyer voted on E-slate at his precinct about 8 a.m. Though designed to assist the handicapped, most votes cast on E-slate machines are done so by nonhandicapped voters.

But when Kleymeyer pushed the button to vote a straight ticket, his vote did not register in the Groob-Westwood race.

"My first thought was they should have checked the machine before letting people vote on it," he said.

The same occurred two hours earlier when Bill Froehle tried to vote a straight ticket at the Ludlow Senior Center.

"I was worried my vote in the state Senate race was not going to be counted," Froehle said.

By 8:30 a.m., Eldridge was organizing an emergency meeting of the Kenton County Board of Elections, a body that includes him; Kenton County Sheriff Chuck Korzenborn; and two members appointed by the county's political parties, Eileen Wendt for the Republicans and Democrat Peggy Zeil.

Kenton Circuit Judge Patricia Summe, who as chief judge observes the election process, sat in on the meeting at Eldridge's office.

Shortly after 9:30 a.m., the board, after some brief debate, decided to halt voting on the machines. Poll workers would be called, and a team of up to 15 troubleshooters, including some of Korzenborn's deputies, would be dispatched to the precincts to instruct poll workers to prevent anyone from voting on the machines.

By 10:30 a.m., the tension in Eldridge's office was palpable.

Westwood arrived, concerned with what he had witnessed and heard about what was taking place at the polls. Groob had called Eldridge's office several times. The candidates had raised and spent a combined $500,000 on the race, knew it could be close, and wanted to make sure every vote was counted.

Eldridge tried to reassure them with the news that voting on the machines was being halted. But the problem lingered.

Voters were still casting ballots on the E-slate machines. Denny Madden voted on an E-slate at 12:39 p.m. at the Hands Pike firehouse in south Covington. Almost two hours later, Dottie Ostendorf did the same at a Taylor Mill precinct.

"I had heard there were some problems with the machines," Ostendorf said. "But when I asked the poll worker if the machine was in service, she said yes."

In Crescent Springs, Mayor Jim Collett said city council votes were not registering on the E-slate device at his polling place.

"The voting system should be sacred," Collett said. "There needs to be an improvement to the system, both in reporting problems at the polls and in taking (corrective) action."

Eldridge was dumbfounded; why were poll workers still allowing voting on the machines? And why had the machines failed in the first place?

The problems led to long lines at the polls, which led to a long delay in Eldridge reporting results. Results were not reported to the media until well after midnight, and they were incomplete. Straight-ticket votes were not included.

By Wednesday morning, Eldridge was under siege. The candidates, mainly Groob and Westwood (preliminary results showed him with a lead of just over 700 votes) wanted the straight-ticket voting results.

The media wanted answers.

Secretary of State Trey Grayson wanted to find out how the problems occurred.

Eldridge's office was jammed with reporters, state and local party officials and lawyers.

Former clerk Bill Aylor, who served 17 years as clerk before retiring in 2006, said when Election Day problems occur, the buck stops at the clerk's office.

"I used to tell all the poll workers that at election school," Aylor said. "'If you screw up, it's all going to come back on me.'"

Voting problems in the 2000 presidential election prompted the federal government to require local governments to buy new electronic machines for disabled voters, and grant money was provided for them to do so. During Aylor's last year as clerk, most of the $601,477 that Kenton County Fiscal Court spent with Harp went toward the purchase of the new federally-mandated, E-slate machines, county records showed.

During a five-year period - from fiscal year 2003-04 to fiscal year 2007-08, Kenton County paid Harp a total of $1,004,000 for voting machines, election supplies and related services, according to county records.

Wednesday morning, Summe ordered Eldridge to unlock the E-slate machines so the straight-ticket ballots could be counted.

There was also a major revelation at the hearing: Harp Elections Services President Roger Baird took responsibility for the machine's malfunctions.

Baird blamed a proof-reading error made while the E-slate machines were being programmed by his staff.

"In no way does this reflect the board (of elections) being negligent," Baird told the judge. "There's no way they could have caught this error."

After the hearing ended, the board of elections began hand-counting the ballots, a process that took about seven hours and lasted until nearly 10 p.m. Westwood actually picked up 807 votes and finished with more votes, 21,057, to 20,250 for Groob. A recanvass, which is basically re-checking the math of the vote count, is scheduled for Thursday. Groob has yet to concede.

Eldridge was at a loss to explain why the poll workers failed to halt the voting.

"We did our best," he explained. "We sent troubleshooters to precincts and we called the poll workers. I don't know if (poll workers) didn't get the message or they chose to ignore it. But we're going to find out."

Kenton County Democratic Party Chairwoman Groob, Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Jennifer Moore, and others said Eldridge, or at the very least, his emergency notification system, failed.

"I was astounded to learn that the clerk's office has no contingency plan in place to respond more quickly and efficiently to serious, countywide problems," Kenton County Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Cassidy said.

Although Harp Election Services set the voting machines, Aylor said that he, when he was county clerk, personally checked the E-slate machines to make sure that all of the test votes were correct.

Eldridge admitted that the E-slate machines were not checked for straight-ticket voting before they were put into service, which apparently is the practice in other counties that use the devices.

That is going to change, the secretary of state said.

"Clearly, we are going to review this process to make sure this does not happen again," said Grayson, a Boone County Republican.

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