Saying the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics "essentially shut down" on the night of the Sept. 9 primary when thousands of phantom votes wrecked havoc with the results, Council member Mary Cheh opened a hearing this morning about the mishap with the stated goal of making sure the Nov. 4 election is "glitch free."
D.C. Council member David Catania was more to the point: "This is not a small matter," he said of the election night problems when thousands of write-in votes appeared and disappeared and had several candidates and their supporters at the board headquarters demanding answers late into the night.
The September primary problems came on the heels of the February presidential primary when the board had not supplied polling places with enough paper ballots.
"This goes to the very heart of our ability to govern ourselves," Catania said. "This is a dangerous slope that we are on."
For weeks, the board has been struggling to explain what happened last month, and in a report issued this week, said workers may have been moving too fast as they counted votes, but Cheh criticized the report, saying it still offered no answers.
Michelle M. Shafer, vice-president of Sequoia Voting Systems, the company that provides the District's voting equipment, was among the first witnesses this morning. She continued to assert the company's position that its equipment was not the source of the problems.
The board of elections had initially said it was a defective vote cartridge that had caused the problems.
"The voting machines all worked well," Shafer said. "In fact, the voting machine tapes were always consistent. In short, the results on election night were due to human error."
Sequoia officials went on to say that the District board's equipment is older and the city could benefit from updating its machinery. "We have been providing information on new equipment," Shafer said. "It is up to the District to decide how they want to spend" money.
Ed Smith, Sequoia vice president, said, more modern equipment is available that can indicate a problem on a cartridge. Community activists are also on the day-long witness roster, among them Dorothy Brizil, who has criticized the city's election process for decades.
But the star witnesses, members of the board of elections, will come this afternoon.
Hamil R. Harris