By Nikita Stewart and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 27, 2008
As many as 126 District voters were mailed incorrect absentee ballots in the latest slip-up for the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, already under scrutiny for mistakes made during the Sept. 9 primary.
The D.C. Republican Committee brought attention to a GOP voter's absentee ballot last week. Although the voter lives in Ward 2, the resident's ballot was missing the Ward 2 council contest and included a Ward 6 state school board race.
Last week, the elections board called it an "isolated incident."
But D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) now says Sequoia Voting Systems, the California-based company that provides the city with its voting system and equipment, informed her office that there are at least 126 flawed absentee ballots. Elections board spokesman Dan Murphy confirmed the number and said that the board is investigating.
"That's the number we got as the worst-case scenario," Murphy said.
The blunder casts more doubt on whether the elections board is prepared for the Nov. 4 general election, which is expected to draw a record number of voters to the polls and is filling the board's headquarters with people seeking to vote absentee in person. About 16,000 absentee ballots have been mailed, and an average of 500 people a day are casting in-person absentee ballots, Murphy said.
"I'm dismayed, because given all of this attention to the board . . . the fact that they wouldn't have been meticulous about the drafting of the ballot is jaw-dropping to me," said Cheh, chairman of a special council committee appointed by Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) after the Sept. 9 primary debacle.
"It can only reflect on bad management, bad leadership. I don't mean to be harsh, but there's no other explanation," Cheh said, adding that the board also appears ill-prepared for the long lines for in-person absentee voting and the number of calls flooding the office.
Cheh's staff waded through more than 250 different types of ballots that have been created for the general election. The ballots are linked to the city's single-member district system, small areas -- sometimes a few blocks -- in which advisory neighborhood commissioners are elected. The errant ballots are for single-member District 2F03.
Murphy said a computer system generates what should be on the ballot based on geography. In the case of 2F03, "somehow a certain block is not in the ward it's supposed to be in," the spokesman said.
Mailed absentee ballots are printed on demand by Sequoia for the elections board.
Twenty-five incorrect, in-person absentee ballots were also produced for that single-member district, said Asher Corson, director of communications for Cheh. Murphy confirmed the number.
"Those are in quarantine, and they won't ever see the light of day," Corson said.
Cheh said the board should have reviewed all of the ballots before they went out.
She and Corson said they fear the disenfranchisement of recipients of those 126 ballots. Those absentee voters could be out of town, or out of the country, and not know that there has been a mistake.
David Meadows, communications director for the D.C. Democratic Party, spoke to the potential for broader disenfranchisement. "Every single vote is important, and people have put their lives on the line for the right to vote," he said.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who appoints the three-member panel that oversees the elections board, said a problem-free election rests on preparation. "We just urge the Board of Elections to do as many tests as humanly possible," Fenty said. "We take nothing for granted, but if you do enough tests, then you put yourself in a position where you don't have to worry on Election Day."
Last month, thousands of phantom votes appeared in initial primary results. A computer memory cartridge from a single precinct caused the error, although neither Sequoia nor the elections board can explain how it happened. They have offered various scenarios, pointing to the possibility that the cartridges were read too quickly, much the way a compact disc could be shoved into a reader too fast.
The mistake led to probes by the council, acting Attorney General Peter J. Nickles and the elections board -- all working toward the goal of a smooth general election.
Cheh said Saturday that she wants documentation of every error and every explanation.
As for the misprinted 2F03 ballot, it might not be a new mistake, Murphy said. It might have just been discovered because of the demand for absentee ballots.
"This has possibly been wrong since 2002, but it never came up," he said Saturday.