D.C. Election Glitch Blamed On Equipment

Patrick Mara greets motorists at Foxhall and Reservoir roads NW to thank supporters for his Republican primary victory.
Patrick Mara greets motorists at Foxhall and Reservoir roads NW to thank supporters for his Republican primary victory. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Nikita Stewart and Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 11, 2008

D.C. election officials blamed a defective computer memory cartridge yesterday for producing what appeared to be thousands of write-in votes that officials say did not exist.

The glitch caused initially inaccurate results in several contests, including two high-profile council races, and created a chaotic scene at Board of Elections and Ethics headquarters Tuesday night. Even with an extremely low turnout, there was no clarity well after midnight, when 50 people, among them candidates and their attorneys, crowded into the election board lobby and demanded answers from officials.

Those answers were still in short supply yesterday, although the board said the confusion did not change the outcomes of the contests. They included the defeat of longtime Republican council member Carol Schwartz.

The episode has sparked uncertainty over whether the board, after apparently botching a routine local primary that drew about 13 percent of registered voters, can handle the general election in November. Officials expect the presidential race to drive a record number of voters to the polls.

"We want the story in November to be the historic turnout, not that the District was unprepared to deal with this," said council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who is appointing a special council committee to probe the debacle.

Gray and others also pointed to the election board's poor performance during the presidential primary in February, when the agency failed to provide precincts with enough ballots to meet demand.

The election board and Sequoia Voting Systems, the company that provides the city's voting equipment, also announced that they would conduct an investigation.

In ward races, incumbent Democrats Jack Evans (Ward 2), Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), Yvette Alexander (Ward 7) and Marion Barry (Ward 8) won with wide margins, beating challengers who ran on messages of change and promises to get more input from the community. Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) was unopposed in his primary bid.

For now, the election board has pinned the primary night problems on a lone cartridge at Precinct 141 at the Frank D. Reeves Center.

A statement from board spokesman Dan Murphy described the erroneous reading of the write-in votes as a malfunction that the agency discovered in an audit after the initial tallies were released about 9 p.m.

Those mistaken readings led to dramatic adjustments in the results.

For example, in the Republican at-large race, 1,560 write-ins at 9:50 p.m. dwindled to 18 by 12:16 a.m. The problem also added thousands of votes to individual candidates, inflating vote totals. At 9:50 p.m. 8,246 ballots were recorded cast in the at-large Republican primary, but that shrank to 3,735 by 12:16 a.m.

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