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.
"It was determined that one defective cartridge caused vote totals to be duplicated into multiple races on the summary report issued by our office. The Board immediately caught and addressed this error, as is reflected in the last unofficial results report issued on Election Night," Murphy said in the statement.
He refused to answer questions from reporters, and no members of the election board appeared.
Industry specialists questioned the board's explanation.
"That press release is a model of obfuscation," said Henry E. Brady, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley who has studied voting systems extensively, including in the deadlocked 2000 presidential contest.
Cartridges record votes from ballot machines, called optical scanners, and then are fed into a counting system that tallies votes District-wide. The cartridges must be programmed for each election, and the counting software must be able to read the cartridge information.
The explanation that a defective cartridge caused tallying errors across multiple races "is what throws me off," Brady said. "It is hard to know what that means. I'm having trouble figuring out how that happens."
Brady also said he was taken aback that so many write-in votes would have been released even as an unofficial count on election night because "any elections official who has been around for more than three days should know that write-ins never are that frequent. That should have been stopped from going out because someone paused to think, 'This simply cannot be true.' "
Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, a Virginia consulting firm, said: "It is strange that a single cartridge would cause results to double across the District, and it also would be strange to have that show up in one race. Why wouldn't it have duplicated other contests in that precinct or more than one race?"
The confusion tempered celebrations and delayed congratulations yesterday as council members and candidates and their supporters talked about the mishap. The races for the District's representatives to Congress and for members of the Democratic National Committee were also on the ballot.
The contest to watch, though, was the Republican primary, in which Schwartz, 64, was trying to fend off her well-organized and well-financed challenger, Patrick Mara, a 33-year-old government relations manager.
In the end, Mara took 60 percent of the vote to Schwartz's 40 percent.
Republicans make up 7 percent of the District's electorate. Tuesday's citywide GOP race drew 3,735 voters.
Mara went through the rolls of Republicans so he could meet them face to face in a door-knocking effort similar to that of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). The business community, which had grown increasingly dissatisfied with Schwartz, contributed heavily to Mara's campaign.
Mara said he was confident of his win despite the glitch and looked ahead to November, when he will have to persuade Democrats to vote for him so he can overcome independent candidates. They will compete for an at-large spot that city law designates for a non-Democrat.
Schwartz offered only a brief comment yesterday: "The only thing I feel good about today is that the nasty, unrelentingly negative campaign waged against me by my opponent and his friends is over."
For decades, she has been known for her broad-based appeal as a moderate Republican, one who supported gay rights and rejected school vouchers while advocating fiscal conservatism. She won the respect of residents with her unsuccessful yet formidable runs for mayor. But Mara used that popularity against her, casting her as un-Republican.
Schwartz, ironically, is chairman of the Council Committee on Workforce Development and Government Operations, which oversees the election board. After the problems in the February presidential primary, she immediately called for a hearing. But she will not be involved in the council's new probe, Gray said.
Neither will Brown or Barry, who serve on Schwartz's committee and were on Tuesday's ballot. Gray said he wants to prevent "any perception of a conflict," although he added that the council's general counsel found no law against it.
Instead, the committee's other members, Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), will be joined by Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) in forming the special committee that will dig into what happened.
Staff writers Mary Pat Flaherty and Paul Schwartzman contributed to this report.