Problems at the polls

Judge rejects Gray's request to extend D.C. voting

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010

District elections officials began counting ballots for races that included a hotly contested mayoral election Tuesday evening, minutes after a Superior Court judge rejected a request by candidate Vincent C. Gray to extend Election Day voting hours past 8 p.m. But the counting extended well into the night, delayed by slow-moving elections officials who expressed a surfeit of caution after faulty results fouled tallies two years ago.

Gray's petition came after a day of balloting marked with problems that, depending on whom you spoke to, were either alarmingly widespread or the normal "hiccups" to be expected in the debut of voting equipment.

Judge Joan Zeldon issued her ruling after a 45-minute emergency hearing, calling the Democratic mayoral challenger's petition an "eleventh hour" request based on a "thin reed" of evidence.

Andrew Sandler, an attorney for Gray, argued that the elections were conducted in a "wholly inadequate way" that deprived city residents of the right to vote. But attorneys for the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said Gray's concerns were overstated and poorly documented. Zeldon agreed.

Tuesday's primary marked the debut of two voting devices -- a new touch-screen electronic voting system and new optical-scan paper-ballot readers -- mandated by the D.C. Council after irregularities in the city's 2008 elections. Also, workers were dealing for the first time with electronic poll book equipment, which resembles a laptop computer and is used to enter information for unregistered voters who wish to cast provisional ballots.

The innovations -- coupled with the introduction of same-day registration, also mandated by the council -- placed new burdens on elections executives and poll workers.

Early Tuesday, it showed.

When polls opened, some workers encountered confusion regarding the "seals" placed on voting machines -- wires bound in plastic that prevent equipment tampering before the polls opened. Each ballot-scanning unit was sent to polling places with two seals, but documentation provided to employees indicated that each machine should have three intact seals.

At Precinct 151, in the Harris Education Center in Ward 7's Marshall Heights neighborhood, the seal-caused delays were compounded by the fact that poll workers couldn't get into the building upon arrival. Polls did not open for about 30 minutes.

By midday, Gray and his campaign had become highly critical of the elections board.

Spokeswoman Traci Hughes said the campaign had identified 15 precincts with various issues, including late openings, inoperable machines and unsecured ballots. "To have those types of irregularities is unconscionable," she said.

But Rokey W. Suleman II, executive director of the Board of Elections and Ethics, said some mishaps are inevitable when technology is debuted.

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