Firm, Elections Board Faulted in Voting Mishap
Panel Cites Poor Equipment, Communication

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 9, 2008

The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics and the company that provides the city with its voting equipment are both responsible for last month's primary election blunder that caused thousands of phantom votes to appear in initial results, according to a preliminary report from a special D.C. Council committee.

The report, released yesterday, says Sequoia Voting Systems, a California-based firm, "was too quick to exonerate itself and the equipment used in the tabulation process. . . . To date, the evidence appears to indicate that there was a problem both in equipment (the server) and in the software."

Also, the elections board failed to effectively communicate with the public about the mishap, the report says. The tabulation problems did not change the outcome of the election, and the board certified the results after counting by hand the votes in the problematic precinct. The board has not pinpointed what happened in the initial mix-up.

The report dismisses Sequoia's theories that human error or static discharge, not defective software or hardware, was at fault when a cartridge from Precinct 141 added thousands of votes. It commits the special committee to examine the effectiveness of the three-member elections board and its top staff.

But those issues cannot be resolved before the Nov. 4 election, which officials expect will draw a record number of voters. The committee's recommendations include actions to be taken Election Day.

A significant step is to train poll workers to persuade voters to use optical-scan machines instead of electronic touch-screen ones, although the primary night blunder has been traced to a cartridge from an optical-scan machine.

The committee -- composed of council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) -- said the optical-scan machines, which use paper ballots, would create "a verified paper trail" that could be audited, should another mishap occur.

The optical-scan machines are also faster, because more voters can fill out ballots at the same time. Just one person at a time can use a touch-screen machine, the report says.

"Our short-term charge is to ensure that the upcoming November general election produces an accurate and reliable count of all votes," Cheh said in a statement. "Our long-term charge is to restore public confidence in our elections process and the people who manage it."

The report comes less than a week after the committee held its first hearing on the primary night problems and the elections board. National voting specialists had said they doubted Sequoia's explanation about what happened.

Sequoia and the board did not respond directly to the committee's conclusions but each promised to cooperate with the council to improve operations Nov. 4.

"We appreciate the committee's work," said Dan Murphy, elections board spokesman.

The mayor appoints the members of the elections board and the council has oversight, but the board is an independent agency.

In an e-mailed response, Sequoia spokeswoman Michelle Shafer repeated her company's testimony from Friday, saying that the mistake was rooted in human error or an electrical discharge.

"However, at this time, we are focused on our highest priority," Shafer said, "which is moving forward with our customer -- the DCBOEE -- and working together with them to ensure a smooth election in the District on November 4th."

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