Primary Vote Still Doesn't Add Up

By Nikita Stewart and Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 22, 2008

As District officials continue to investigate errors in the early vote tallies from the Sept. 9 primary, one number stands out: 1,542.

That number appeared in the category for "over votes" in 13 separate races when the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics released early results on election night. But those votes inexplicably vanished shortly after midnight, when officials posted what they identified as corrected results.

The appearance of an identical number of over votes in so many individual races creates further mystery and new doubts about the District's ability to count ballots as the board faces a Wednesday deadline to certify the primary results. In fact, the board and a special D.C. Council committee say they are still investigating why thousands of phantom write-in votes turned up in initial election tallies.

An over vote occurs when more than one candidate in a single race is selected on a paper ballot, and it invalidates the vote in that contest. On election night, the early tallies included a listing for over votes for each race, even when the number was zero. But in its posted results, the elections board removed listings of over votes and under votes -- which indicate that a voter did not select a candidate -- from 32 of the 46 races.

What happened to those numbers?

"It will be in our report," said Dan Murphy, an elections board spokesman, referring to the board's internal review.

The November general election is expected to draw a far larger turnout, raising concerns about the board's ability to conduct it properly.

"I can say one thing: It underscores the need for the investigation," said D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D). "This could affect this election and future elections."

Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), chairman of the special committee, said, "One trail often leads to others, and this will be on the agenda to look at." She has issued a subpoena for documents from Sequoia Voting Systems, the California-based company that supplies the District with its voting equipment and software.

The elections board initially blamed the discrepancies on a single defective computer memory cartridge at the Precinct 141 polling site on U Street NW in the Dupont Circle area. Sequoia has said the cartridge was not defective and suggested that tabulation errors might have been triggered by workers or by a static or electrical discharge.

The number 1,542 showed up as over votes in the five contests in which only Ward 2 voters could cast ballots, in the four Republican citywide contests and in the four Statehood Green citywide races. The skewed results for write-ins and other tallies also were inflated by about 1,500 votes.

Whatever the explanation, thousands of votes, now said to be nonexistent, altered the initial results. The discovery drew angry candidates or their representatives to the board's headquarters on primary night. Shortly after midnight, the board revised the results. The board has said the initial errors did not affect the outcome of any race, and no candidates have asked for a recount.

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