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Fairfax To Probe Voting Machines

By David Cho and Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 18, 2003; Page B01

Democrats in Fairfax County joined Republicans yesterday in criticizing the performance of the county's costly new high-tech voting system, saying that it may have disenfranchised voters in the Nov. 4 election.

The Democrat-led board of supervisors scolded the county board of elections for minimizing problems with the touch-screen machines that the county purchased this year for $3.5 million and asked County Executive Anthony H. Griffin to investigate what went wrong before the machines are pressed into service again in February for the Democratic presidential primary.

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Fairfax's 1,000 touch-screen voting machines, which resemble laptop computers without keyboards, were supposed to simplify voting and tabulating results. But in a debut that mirrored many of the problems experienced last year in Montgomery County, some voters found the machines confusing, and the reporting of vote tallies was delayed almost a day.

Electoral board secretary Margaret K. Luca delivered an upbeat assessment in a memo to the supervisors. "Overall, the new voting machines worked well," she wrote. "We had almost 1,000 new machines involved in an election for the first time, and only 10 of those posed a problem."

But Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence), the incoming board chairman, called Luca's assessment "cavalier."

"To say that only 10 machines out of 1,000 did not work is simply not correct," he said. Connolly noted that in his precinct two of four machines were not working, causing long lines in the morning. He also said the machine initially did not allow him to vote for at-large School Board members.

On election night, Fairfax Republicans filed a lawsuit alleging election irregularities after 10 machines from nine precincts broke down during voting, were brought to the county government center for repairs and then returned to the polls -- a violation of election law, they argued. Late last week, the Republicans demanded that the county implement new procedures for dealing with machines that malfunction.

At-large School Board member Rita S. Thompson, who narrowly lost reelection, said she is considering a challenge because of problems with voting machines. Voters in three precincts said in interviews that when they attempted to vote for her, the machines initially displayed an "x" next to her name but then, after a few seconds, the "x" disappeared.

Thompson has asked that electoral board staff members test every machine to determine the extent of such problems, and she said she is considering filing a lawsuit to force them to do so.

County election officials tried one of the machines in question and discovered that the glitch occurred about "one out of a hundred tries," Luca said. She added that she would take Thompson's request "under serious consideration."

Meanwhile, state legislators from both parties said they plan to raise the issue of the voting machines' performance in the upcoming General Assembly session.

"We've just done an electronic Florida. That's what it looks like to me at first blush," said Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax), referring to the balloting problems in the 2000 presidential election. He added that he was "shocked" when he heard that Thompson lost and blamed the machines for taking votes from her.

"I don't think this is going to be a partisan issue. Anyone who is running as a candidate is concerned about the integrity of the process," he said.

Some supervisors complained yesterday that the machines had been set up without being surrounded by curtains; thus, voters had no privacy. The machines also were confusing to some elderly voters, said Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason).

Outgoing board Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D) said she was disturbed that the high-tech system failed to transmit full voting results until the next day.

"We had a novel way of declaring a winner on election night," she said. "If you got a concession speech call, we declared you a winner."

Luca responded that she would try to address the board's concerns. She said she has called for a public meeting of the three-member board of elections to go over the supervisors' requests at 5 p.m. today.

"I pledge that I will answer every question as soon as I possibly can in the proper fashion," she said.

Fairfax election officials had confidently promised that their machinery would work better than Montgomery County's had, citing a battery of tests conducted before the elections. They also said the system would greatly speed the reporting of results. Instead, it produced one of the slowest vote tallies in memory.


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