District's Primary Results Certified

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2008

District elections officials certified results from the Sept. 9 primary yesterday but still offered no details about how they knew a single computer memory cartridge could skew tallies by adding thousands of phantom votes.

The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics had delayed certifying the results a day for a recount of paper ballots from Precinct 141, home to what the agency has called a "defective cartridge."

After board employees and volunteers counted Precinct 141 ballots by hand for four hours Wednesday and nearly six hours yesterday, the three-member board certified the results. But it did not conduct a full recount of the election, which involved 13 percent of the city's registered voters.

The board also did not release a report of the findings of an internal investigative panel because "the internal review . . . is ongoing," board spokesman Dan Murphy said in a statement.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chairman of a special council committee investigating what went wrong, said the board has told her that it doesn't know what happened. Initial results showed that exactly 1,542 "over votes" appeared in 13 races -- four citywide Republican races, four citywide Statehood Green races and five races in which only Ward 2 voters could cast ballots. Over votes are recorded when a person marks more than one candidate's name on a ballot. Those votes and others disappeared when the board released what it said were correct results.

The board, Cheh said, is pointing to scenarios hypothesized by Sequoia Voting Systems, the California-based firm that provides the city with its voting equipment and software and has said there is nothing wrong with its equipment. It offers other possibilities: an electrical discharge, accidental manual ejection of the cartridge or a failure to properly insert the cartridge.

Cheh said she backed the board's decision to certify the precinct results based on the hand count, which matched results recorded on a tape, similar to a cash register receipt. "I'm not going to be an apologist for them, but I can see how they can come to that conclusion," she said.

Her three-member committee is continuing its own probe about the incident, she said. The others on the panel are Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large).

Cheh added that the election board must produce a plan on how it is going to ensure accurate results in November's general election, which is expected to draw a record number of voters to the polls. Unlike in the primary, Cheh noted, one candidate, council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), is waging a write-in campaign.

In the initial inaccurate results, thousands of votes also showed up as write-ins, the number of which is usually nominal.

Sequoia's deadline for giving the committee documents, equipment and other materials requested in a subpoena is today, Cheh said.

"We've sequestered the machine, the cartridge and the hardware," she said, adding that she wants an independent evaluation.

Sequoia also provides equipment to jurisdictions in 17 states. Palm Beach County, Fla., which uses Sequoia, recently grappled with a circuit court race, in which officials are blaming a computer glitch for problems.

Michelle Shafer, a spokeswoman for Sequoia, said there are no similarities between the troubles in the District and Palm Beach County. "Not the same at all, other than in all cases, our software and voting equipment worked as it should. This is not a software or hardware problem in either case," she said in an e-mail interview immediately after the D.C. election.

Shafer said yesterday: "Again, this is not a voting machine issue. It was a procedural issue that is easily rectified. We will continue to work with our customer to ensure they are prepared for the November 4th election."

Activist Carol Waser has been pushing the election board to change its procedures, and she has been a long-standing critic of voting machines.

She was among those activists who pushed the board to conduct the separate hand recount of ballots from precincts after the primary. "But you can't check the machines," she said. "The next step is to get rid of the machines."

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