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Lost Votes in N.M. a Cautionary Tale

Neither Vigil nor state elections director Denise Lamb remembered problems in Rio Arriba when asked about them for The Post's review. They referred questions to Fresquez, who said he remembered the problem well.

Rio Arriba County has three voting districts -- the candidates for state legislature in each are different -- but for early voters the county used just one ballot listing the names of all the candidates.

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"There was no way we could get the correct votes because that was how they programmed the machine," Fresquez said.

Fresquez said the county had only two early-voting locations. Rather than programming separate machines at each location for the county's different voting districts, Rio Arriba tried to program one machine to cover all the districts. "They were trying to use less machines," he said. "They thought they could put it all on one ballot. They were not aware of" any problem.

Still, he and Lamb said they thought the error did not mean votes were really lost. Rather, they said it was likely the votes in one or two districts were credited to the totals of another district.

That outcome does not appear to square with tallies from the county's three election districts. In one district, none of the 203 ballots cast were recorded for Bush or Gore. In another, 188 of the 569 voters cast a presidential vote. The third district had a more typical pattern, with 1,500 of the 1,594 voters recording a presidential choice.

New Mexico is the only state to have an elaborate, three-step audit process of voting results. Precinct results are checked by the county and state and then by a certified public accounting firm. The federal Election Assistance Commission, established after the 2000 Florida recount to help states establish new voting systems, has cited the audit as a "best practice" to be used elsewhere.

Lamb testified to the commission that the "triple audit" would alert the state to problems with the electronic voting machines. Fresquez's work on Rio Arriba's results did uncover the programming error. But it was never publicized.

In fact, the audit could show only that the programming error occurred. There was no way to recount the missed votes. They were simply gone.

Mistakes with new computer technology leave election officials with no recourse, said electronic voting critic Avi Ruben of Johns Hopkins University.

The outcome of a close presidential election could hinge on votes that cannot be reconstructed. "What are we going to do?" he asked. "Do we throw our hands up on a national scale and say 'We messed up'?"

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