By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Addressing the voting problems yesterday, Catania noted, "This goes to the very heart of our ability to govern ourselves. This is a dangerous slope that we are on."
This year, the elections board has had changes in its leadership, among its staff and on the three-member board.
Arthur, the chairman, noted that the agency resolved many of the issues it has dealt with in the past -- long lines and a lack of ballots -- during the Sept. 9 primary, the results of which were certified Sept. 25.
The special council committee, however, has been aggressive in digging into the recent primary by issuing subpoenas for voting equipment used that night and bringing on national law firm Jenner & Block to help with the probe.
Michelle M. Shafer, a vice president of Sequoia, told the council yesterday that although the equipment is not new, it was not the source of the problems on primary night. The elections board had initially said it was a defective vote cartridge that caused the phantom votes.
"The voting machines all worked well," Shafer said, as she has insisted all along. "In fact, the voting machine tapes were always consistent. In short, the results on election night were due to human error."
She and other Sequoia officials said more modern equipment is available that can help isolate voting problems if they are machine-related, and they criticized the city for not upgrading its equipment.
Dorothy Brizil, executive director of DC Watch, said she has always been leery of the "bridge software" city officials created to link the two types of voting machines. But Brizil said her main concern has been the board itself. "It doesn't help when the board members are not accessible," she said.
Douglas Jones, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa and a voting expert who studied Florida after the 2000 presidential race, testified via teleconference. He had criticisms for both Sequoia and District officials.
Jones told the council that he has investigated Sequoia equipment and that some of their products have had problems. He added, however, that there are basic checks and balances that D.C. officials should have performed that they did not.
"What voters expect of elections are accuracy, confidence and finality, and we didn't get that at its highest value on Sept. 9," said Cary Silverman, a candidate for the Ward 2 council seat. "We still don't know if the results are accurate today."
Silverman said he wants to know how at 9:30 p.m. he had 3,097 votes and Jack Evans had 4,379 votes, and by 11:10 p.m. those numbers had changed to 1,582 for Silverman and 2,897 for Evans.
The board, which this week issued its own investigation into the problems on primary night, has said its workers might have been counting votes too fast.
Arthur said he takes "exception" with claims that the board is not responsive or accessible. "When they criticized us, we stood there and accepted it," he told the panel.
None of it satisfied council members.
"I feel that we have gone backwards in the last few years, and I am deeply disgusted," Mendelson said.
Staff writer Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.