By Nikita Stewart and Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 19, 2008
More than a week after the D.C. primary, the elections board has not fully explained what caused major errors in initial vote tallies, prompting D.C. Council member Mary Cheh to issue a subpoena for records from the California-based company that supplies the city with its voting equipment and software.
And an audit of four random precincts yesterday was troubling to voting advocates when the numbers still didn't add up.
Some council members and candidates say the delay by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics in offering a detailed analysis of how thousands of phantom votes appeared in early election results raises doubts about whether the board is prepared to handle November's general election, which is expected to draw a record number of voters to the polls. The primary brought out 13 percent of registered voters, or 42,421.
Cheh, chairman of a special council committee probing the primary and overall board operations, said she issued the subpoena to Sequoia Voting Systems, the company that provides the city's voting equipment, because there is no time to waste. "This is less about my worry that they will or will not be cooperative . . . and more about getting everything underway right away," Cheh said, adding that the committee will hold a hearing Oct. 3. "We are all on a short timeline."
Though Cheh has met with two board members and several elections employees, board officials have been silent publicly, refusing to answer questions until the board's internal investigation is completed. Acting Attorney General Peter J. Nickles said he also is "talking to relevant people about what happened."
Dan Murphy, elections board spokesman, said he did not know whether the agency would give a definitive explanation of what occurred in the primary before results are certified by Wednesday's deadline.
Initially, the board blamed a defective cartridge at Precinct 141, on U Street NW, which officials said added thousands of phantom write-in votes to multiple races. Murphy said yesterday that workers ran the same cartridges through the same program but arrived at three different results. The last set, he said, was correct.
Murphy did not offer further explanation. "When you see the report, you're going to see how we came to that conclusion," he said.
Meanwhile, longtime government watchdogs continued to question the process yesterday as they saw board employees struggle to hand-count paper ballots from precincts 13, 21, 22 and 44 , which Acting Executive Director Sylvia Goldsberry-Adams said she plucked randomly from a hat.
The manual audit, which still was not completed after eight hours, had been planned before the primary blunder.
The elections board conducted yesterday's audit in response to a request from citizens, including activist Dorothy Brizill and members of the League of Women Voters, who have been concerned about past problems in elections. It was the first such audit, and the board plans to conduct audits after future elections.
By the end of the day, the employees had finished counting the ballots from three of the precincts and compared them with the results on tapes -- similar to cash register receipts -- produced Tuesday night.
None of them matched.
It was a frustrating day for elections officials, critics who were left shaking their heads, and for exhausted election workers -- some brought in from their warehouse duties. The message written on one worker's T-shirt proclaimed: "Men Lie, Women Lie, Numbers Lie"
In Precinct 21, which is in Ward 2, the results for 19 of 70 candidates that appeared on the ballot were off by one or two votes.
Lawrence Norden, a lawyer in the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said even small discrepancies can point to a serious problem. "Think about it this way," he said, "when you look at it citywide, one or two small things can become big problems."
Elections officials said they would have to keep recounting until the discrepancies discovered yesterday are reconciled. The audit continues today. Officials will also look at the tapes of cartridges from touch-screen voting machines from the four precincts.
Some activists remain skeptical.
"This is not a real audit," Brizill said, referring to various procedures she did not think were being followed and to the absence of board members and representatives of Sequoia.