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Voting Database Is Fine, Firm Says
User Error Cited As Possibility in D.C. Vote Foul-Up

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 12, 2008

The company that provides the District with its voting equipment said yesterday that it does not know what happened Tuesday night when thousands of phantom votes appeared in initial results of the primary election, but it wasn't a single defective memory cartridge.

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with the database," said Michelle Shafer, spokeswoman for California-based Sequoia Voting Systems. "There's absolutely no problem with the machines in the polling places. No. No."

Instead, the company pointed to possible static discharge or other scenarios, including the possibility of human error. The conclusion was based on Sequoia's examination of the District's election database, according to a company statement yesterday, and the company essentially rejected D.C. election officials' assertion that "one defective cartridge" was at fault. The glitch led to a chaotic scene Tuesday night as 50 people, including several candidates and their lawyers, showed up demanding answers about the voting tallies.

Daniel Murphy, a spokesman for the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, backed away from the board's initial statement, saying "defective" could have applied to the way the cartridge was read when votes were being counted.

"All I can tell you is that we're looking into it," he said yesterday.

The board has said that the cartridge was from Precinct 141, at the Frank Reeves Center at 14th and U streets NW. Elections board members have been mum. Board Chairman Errol R. Arthur forwarded a reporter's e-mail requesting an interview to Murphy.

The elections board had come under fire for its management of the presidential primary in February, when precincts ran out of paper ballots. Tuesday night's problems have opened it up to more scrutiny. District officials said Wednesday that they are concerned about the General Election in November, during which they expect record turnout because of the presidential race.

Industry specialists have said that they were doubtful that the single cartridge theory would hold up. Write-ins and other votes were added to the tallies of several races and crossed party lines.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) is appointing a special council committee to investigate, while Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has turned to acting Attorney General Peter Nickles to look into the hiccup. One Advisory Neighborhood Commission has approved a resolution requesting that the D.C. government recount the votes.

Confusion muted victory parties Tuesday night after candidates and their supporters took note of unusually high numbers of write-in votes in several of the primary races, including the contentious reelection bids of council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Carol Schwartz (R-At Large).

Jeff Coudriet, committee clerk for Evans, volunteered on Evans's campaign Tuesday and conducted a periodic check of ballots at some precincts, including Precinct 141.

At 10 a.m., 110 voters had trickled in, and by 6 p.m., 256 voters had cast ballots, according to the notes he took on his iPhone.

According to the election results that the board is maintaining, 326 ballots were cast by the close of the polls at 8 p.m., which would correspond with Coudriet's accounting.

So something happened after the polls closed. But what?

"There are multiple possibilities for failure to properly read the cartridge data," according to Sequoia's statement.

In addition to a possible static discharge, the company said, someone might have caused the problem by mishandling the cartridge when loading it into the machine used to read it.

After the presidential primary, Fenty appointed Arthur chairman of the board, and executive director Alice P. Miller resigned. The elections board also recruited new poll workers and decided to increase paid volunteers from 1,500 to more than 2,000.

The workers receive two hours of training for various jobs, including ballot box clerk, check-in clerk, precinct technician and precinct captain, Murphy said.

Sequoia has provided the systems for the District for at least two decades, he said. This year's contract is worth $764,894, according to city records.

Murphy said the board will continue to try to pinpoint the problem.

Of the comments from Sequoia's Shafer, he said: "What she was giving you were thoughts of what might have happened. We never want a situation like this to happen again."

Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.

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