By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
U.S. Senate candidate James Webb's last name has been cut off on part of the electronic ballot used by voters in Alexandria, Falls Church and Charlottesville because of a computer glitch that also affects other candidates with long names, city officials said yesterday.
Although the problem creates some voter confusion, it will not cause votes to be cast incorrectly, election officials emphasized. The error shows up only on the summary page, where voters are asked to review their selections before hitting the button to cast their votes. Webb's full name appears on the page where voters choose for whom to vote.
Election officials attribute the mistake to an increase in the type size on the ballot. Although the larger type is easier to read, it also unintentionally shortens the longer names on the summary page of the ballot.
Thus, Democratic candidate Webb will appear with his first name and nickname only -- or "James H. 'Jim' " -- on summary pages in Alexandria, Falls Church and Charlottesville, the only jurisdictions in Virginia that use balloting machines manufactured by Hart InterCivic of Austin.
"We're not happy about it," Webb spokeswoman Kristian Denny Todd said last night, adding that the campaign learned about the problem a week ago and has since been in touch with state election officials. "I don't think it can be remedied by Election Day. Obviously, that's a concern."
Every candidate on Alexandria's summary page has been affected in some way by the glitch. Even if candidates' full names appear, as is the case with Webb's Republican opponent, incumbent Sen. George F. Allen, their party affiliations have been cut off.
Jean Jensen, secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections, who said yesterday she only recently became aware of the problem, pledged to have it fixed by the 2007 statewide elections.
"You better believe it," Jensen said. "If I have to personally get on a plane and bring Hart InterCivic people here myself, it'll be corrected."
Absentee voters casting ballots in advance of the Nov. 7 election first noticed the problem. Election officials have been forced to post signs in voting booths and instruct poll workers to explain why some longer names appear cut-off.
Election officials in Alexandria said they have been vexed by the problem since they purchased the voting machines in 2003. Although the problem has raised eyebrows among confused voters, elections officials said they are confident that the trouble has not led voters to cast ballots incorrectly.
"This is not the kind of problem that has either shaken our confidence in the system overall or that of the vote," said Alexandria Registrar Tom Parkins. "There have been far worse problems around the country."
James T. "Jim" Hurysz, an independent candidate who's running to unseat incumbent Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), sees it somewhat differently. His name has been shortened on the summary page to "James T. 'Jim.' "
Moran is the one lucky James in Alexandria whose last name made the summary page, although without the "Jr."
"That situation is not acceptable," Hurysz said. "There's enough voter confusion as it is."
Jensen said Hart InterCivic has created an upgrade for their firmware and recently applied for state certification to apply the fix. That process, she said, can be time-consuming because of security measures in place .
Hart InterCivic officials yesterday said they hoped to correct the problem by next fall.
"The newer voting systems will not be certified and installed before the Nov. 7 election," said company Vice President Phillip Braithwaite. Hart InterCivic "does intend to install the newer system version before the next major election in 2007, assuming certification from the commonwealth."
In the meantime, Jensen said, the three affected jurisdictions have begun educating voters to prevent confusion on Election Day and will place notices in each of the polling booths that explain the summary page problem.
"We have a very conspicuous posting in the booths and if [voters] say, 'Hey I don't like what I'm seeing on the summary page,' we can refer them to the chart," Parkins said.
Three years ago, Alexandria purchased about 225 Hart InterCivic machines for $750,000. "We're not comfortable with [this problem] in the long term . . . but we have every reason to expect it will be rectified before the next election," Parkins said.
Sheri Iachetta, general registrar for Charlottesville, said the city purchased 72 machines in 2002. Election officials have had trouble displaying long names ever since.
"We do have people complain and say they don't get it," Iachetta said. "I completely understand what they're saying, but it's not something I can control. We do a pretty good proactive job getting the word out. . . . We've tried to let the voters know that their vote will count even if they can't see the entire name on the summary page."