D.C.'s Primary Mystery

Thursday, October 2, 2008

IT WAS BAD enough that thousands of phantom votes cast a cloud over the D.C. primary on Sept. 9. Even more troubling is that three weeks later, District election officials still have no clue as to what went wrong. The Board of Elections and Ethics concluded its investigation into the breakdown with the finding, released yesterday, that a cartridge "inexplicably" added randomly generated numbers to vote totals. The disappointing report, as D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) observed to The Post's Nikita Stewart, "offered nothing insightful or new or particularly helpful in what happened." That's scary, considering that the board not only certified the results of the Sept. 9 primary but also will be in charge of balloting in the Nov. 4 general election. Election officials initially blamed the problem on a defective computer memory cartridge that supposedly caused extra votes to be counted. But the firm that provides the city with its election equipment did its own testing and said nothing was wrong with either the hardware or software. It suggested that worker error or static electricity or other factors might be to blame.

It is clear that the board compounded the troubles of primary night by not arranging for an independent review by technical experts. Three of the four members conducting the investigation are employed by the board, so in effect the agency ended up investigating its own mistakes. Little wonder there wasn't a more definitive outcome, although the board does get credit for its admission that staff members acted too hastily in reading computer memory cartridges and then in releasing them.

The best hope now for solving the mystery lies with Ms. Cheh, who is heading a special council committee probing the problems of primary night and other voting issues. Her first hearing is set for tomorrow, and witnesses will include board members as well as representatives of Sequoia Voting Systems. Ms. Cheh also was right to look ahead to next month's general election, lining up the services of a law firm known for its work on voting issues to help ensure that the District will be ready when the polls open.

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