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Voting machine mistake mars treasurer's election  (VA)

TIM DAVIS/Star-Tribune    11 November 2008

Although Teresa Easley of Chatham was certified last week as the winner in the Pittsylvania County treasurer's race, controversy over voting machine mistakes continues to mar the election.

Easley received 12,781 votes to 11, 359 votes for Kate Berger of Gretna. Chad Miller of Dry Fork trailed with 4,235 votes.

However, county election officials said some voters - no one seems to know how many - may have left polling places last Tuesday morning without voting for treasurer because the candidates were not on electronic ballots.

Registrar Jenny Lee Sanders first learned of the problem at 5:55 a.m. when a Dry Fork election official called and reported that the treasurer's ballot didn't come up on the screen.

Election officials tried to notify all of the county's 29 precincts, but Sanders said they had trouble reaching some by telephone.

She said most were notified by 6:30 a.m., although there were reports that some precincts didn't correct the problem until 7 a.m. or later.

"If people wanted to vote for treasurer, they were allowed to vote on paper ballots," the registrar said.

Election officials also tried to call some voters who left before the problem was detected so that they could return to the polls.

According to Sanders, voting machines are programmed by an outside contractor. The software program is sent to the county on a CD and installed on voting machines.

The machines have three ballots - presidential, federal, and full.

The presidential ballot included only candidates for president, while the federal included both candidates for president and the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives.

The full ballot, which included all three, should have been on all of the county's voting machines, but somehow the program was reversed on some machines and the treasurer candidates didn't appear.

Sanders said the glitch only affected some of the county's voting machines.

Berger ended up losing by a little more than 1,400 votes, which means she cannot ask for a recount.

To qualify for a recount, the difference between candidates has to be less than 1 percent of the total votes.

As far as the registrar is concerned, the election is "over and done with."

"I don't think it cost her the race," said Sanders. "She can contest it, but will have to go to court."

It would cost the county between $25,000 and $30,000 to hold another election.

Berger sent a letter to the Pittsylvania County Electoral Board and State Board of Elections last week asking for a full investigation.

"It is important to find out how this happened, where this occurred, how long it took place, and the number of voters who came through each precinct prior to it being fixed," she said.

"While I cannot know whether this could affect the outcome of the treasurer's race until I have this information, I do know that people were denied to opportunity to vote. We need to make sure how this happened and what was done about it to make sure this is not an issue in future elections."

According to Berger, as many as 16 precincts reported problems. At one polling place, 76 people voted before the problem was corrected, she said.

"Some places caught it fairly quickly; others didn't," she said. "I don't know how many people went through before it was caught and finally fixed. Regardless of the outcome, it's very obvious quite a few voters did not have an opportunity to vote for treasurer."

Berger said it's too early to say if she will challenge the election in court, which could be expensive. She just wants answers.

"I am being told a very different story by polling officials and voters and my poll workers than I am getting from the registrar," she said.

"Even if the number can't change the election, the error that occurred should not have happened. The machines should have been checked in Chatham and there should be some way for them to be checked before the voters start voting on site.

"This needs to be investigated so that procedures are in place to make sure it does not happen again."

Electoral Board chairman Dorothy Neals said the board is scheduled to meet Thurday to look into the matter.

"I am very concerned it happened," said Neals, "but I don't think the outcome would have been different."

The Electoral Board also includes Raymond Ramsey and Brenda Arthur.

Easley, 56, will replace Treasurer Shirley Simpson, who died last May.

The new treasurer will take office on Jan 1. 2009, and serve the remaining three years of Simpson's four-year term.

The job pays $80,035 a year.

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