Council Grills Elections Board
Saturday, October 4, 2008
After weeks behind closed doors, members of the District's Board of Elections and Ethics and their staff appeared in public yesterday and found themselves facing pointed questions and blistering criticisms from members of the D.C. Council, voting experts and community activists.
Trying to understand what happened during the Sept. 9 primary, when thousands of phantom write-in votes jumbled the election returns, council members thrashed the board for its inability to explain the mishap and its inaccessibility and asked why the board had not upgraded the city's voting equipment.
The city uses two voting machines: optical scanners, which are six years old, and touch screens, which are four years old.
As the board offered several scenarios as to why the malfunctions occurred, including the presence of electrical discharge, council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) asked a broader question: "Why haven't you upgraded your equipment?"
Acting executive director Sylvia Goldsberry-Adams replied, "I think, quite honestly, I inherited the equipment that is here."
Under continued questioning, she finally said, "I have no idea. I can't answer that at this time."
David A. Catania (I-At Large) described Goldsberry-Adams's response as equivalent to saying, "The dog ate my homework."
Erroll R. Arthur, chairman of the board, told the committee that the equipment had not been upgraded because "thus far the system has worked."
Mendelson fired back that the system clearly has not.
Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who heads the special committee set up by council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), opened the full-day session featuring testimony from representatives from Sequoia Voting Systems, which supplies the District's equipment, as well as activists and voting experts.
Cheh told the audience that the panel's goal is to guarantee a glitch-free election Nov. 4.
Although the hearing focused on primary night and the general election, it also launched the council's probe into the operations of an elections board that has struggled through recent elections. In February, the agency failed to provide precincts with enough ballots for the crowds that flooded the polls for the historic presidential primary.