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.

The elections board is an independent government agency with a $5.5 million budget and 50 full-time equivalent employees.

Its independence makes supervision delicate. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) appoints members of the three-person board, and the council has oversight. Only the three-member board has the authority to terminate or discipline employees.

A memo obtained by The Washington Post shows that three of the four members of the elections board task force reviewing the blunders also work for the board: Darlene Lesesne-Horton, data services manager; Mohammad M.B. Maeruf, information technology project manager; and Vialetta Graham, chief technology officer. The fourth member is Clifford Tatum, a Help America Vote Act consultant from Georgia.

The Sept. 10 memo, written by Acting Executive Director Sylvia Goldsberry-Adams, explains to employees that "one defective cartridge caused vote totals to be duplicated into multiple races on the summary report issued by our office."

Goldsberry-Adams wrote that the task force would look into "an explanation of the cartridge reading process and the misread of the data on Election Night," identify the methodology used to tabulate results, create a timeline of events and make recommendations to "curtail the risk of a recurrence of such issues in the future."

Reached by phone, Tatum said he knew little about the investigation other than what he has been told about the cartridge. He said he did not know whether the 1,542 over votes had been part of the problem on primary night. "Honestly, I can't say," Tatum said. "I don't know enough to answer yes or no to that question."

He said he would be in the District on behalf of the board this week but declined to say what day.

Lesesne-Horton did not return a phone message left at her home, and Maeruf and Graham declined to comment. Last week, Maeruf and Graham were in charge of an audit of four random precincts. Although employees did multiple counts, minor discrepancies in precincts 13 and 21, both in Ward 2, remained.

Their roles as the board's technology gurus and as investigators of the voting irregularities is troublesome, said David R. Jefferson, a computer scientist and specialist in electronic and Internet voting.

He said that too often elections boards become the chief investigators when something goes awry.

"Yet again, they are investigating their own mistakes," Jefferson said. "Time and time again, experience shows we need independent technical investigations of incidents like this. I wish the D.C. Council or whoever has authority would just order it."

Several years ago, questions arose about the academic background of Graham, the board's chief technology officer.

In 2003, the District's inspector general completed a year-long investigation on the board and found that Graham had misrepresented her academic credentials on two city job applications, saying she had received a bachelor's degree in computer science from American University when she had not.

Then-Inspector General Charles C. Maddox suggested the board take disciplinary action, noting that others who have falsified city applications have been fired. The elections board suspended Graham for 60 days and allowed her to use paid leave during the time. Board officials said at the time that Graham's position did not require a college degree and that in hiring her it relied solely on her work experience.

Alice P. Miller, the board's executive director for 12 years, resigned in May to become the chief operating officer at the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission, an independent federal agency that certifies voting systems for elections boards across the country and develops voting guidelines to ensure compliance with federal law.

Critics of board operations under Miller still fretted over the loss of her institutional knowledge. According to city records, the board hired Miller in July to serve as an elections management adviser. A city budget official said she was being paid for 10 hours a week.

Miller did not return phone calls for comment.

Staff writer Mary Pat Flaherty contributed to this report.

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