Recount of Paper Ballots Delays Certification of Primary Results

Elections workers, clockwise from bottom, Mohammad Maeruf, David Mayes, Vialetta Graham and Dennis Thompson compared results last week of ballots counted manually to the original count.
Elections workers, clockwise from bottom, Mohammad Maeruf, David Mayes, Vialetta Graham and Dennis Thompson compared results last week of ballots counted manually to the original count. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2008

The District still can't officially declare who won the Sept. 9 primaries, which are under scrutiny after thousands of phantom votes were added to initial results election night.

The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, scheduled to certify results yesterday, delayed that action to conduct a recount of the paper ballots from Precinct 141, home to the computer memory cartridge that the board said was defective and skewed the results.

Board Chairman Errol R. Arthur announced yesterday morning that the count would take at most three hours, an estimate that proved wrong when volunteers and poll workers took nearly four hours to count the results of 10 races. Counting results of the eight remaining contests will resume today. The recount will not change the races' outcomes, officials said.

"I would rather be slow and deliberate than inaccurate," the election board's acting executive director, Sylvia Goldsberry-Adams, told board members yesterday after the recount was suspended.

Kenneth McGhie, the board's general counsel, said yesterday's deadline to certify results 10 working days after the primary serves as only a recommendation within the law. Now, he said, the board's goal is to meet federal guidelines to certify the primary 30 to 45 calendar days before the General Election on Nov. 4.

The board must also be cognizant of the time it takes to print ballots, including absentees, McGhie said, adding that he did not know how long it takes for ballot printing. In-person absentee voting is scheduled to begin Oct. 20.

The recount has also held up the public release of the board's report on how a single cartridge could duplicate votes in multiple races and how officials will make sure such a blunder will not be repeated.

The report, completed by an internal investigative panel, recommended conducting yesterday's recount, said Dan Murphy, election board spokesman.

A special D.C. Council committee and Acting Attorney General Peter J. Nickles are also investigating.

"As far as I can determine, they are proceeding in a satisfactory way," Nickles said. "The important thing is to get the official results behind us. As to the cartridge issue, that's something I'm still looking at. I'm going to assure that we find out what happened to the particular cartridge that is supposed to be at the heart of the problem."

The lack of answers follows the board's pattern since primary night, when about 50 people filled the board's headquarters, demanding to know what was happening with their peculiar results. There were thousands of write-in votes, thousands of extra votes for candidates in multiple races and thousands of what are known as "over votes," meaning a voter picked more than one candidate and the vote didn't count.

Initial results showed that 1,542 over votes were shown in 13 races.

The board appeased most candidates and their supporters when it announced that the error had been traced to the cartridge. Although the board has said repeatedly through Murphy that the unofficial winners definitely won, the agency has not given details about how that was determined.

A memo to election workers from Goldsberry-Adams calls the cartridge "defective," but it also implies that the cartridge might have been "misread." Sequoia Voting Systems, the California-based company that provides the city with its equipment and software, has denied that the cartridge was defective.

Activists have been watching the board's recent actions closely. The board has been criticized in the past for mistakes.

During the presidential primary in February, for example, the agency failed to provide precincts with enough paper ballots to accommodate voters who flooded the polls.

Five years ago, an investigation by the city's inspector general questioned the board's hiring of Vialetta Graham, the agency's chief technology officer. She was found to have lied on her résumé about having a bachelor's degree in computer science.

Graham is on the internal investigative panel.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company