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Once again, delays plague counting of ballots in the District

By Mike DeBonis
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 3:55 AM

It took nearly six hours after polls closed Tuesday for elections officials to declare winners in nine city Democratic races -- none of which appeared to be any closer than the eight percentage points that represented the margin in the headline clash between D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

A day that started with problems for the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, with scattered glitches with new voter equipment, ended with more problems.

In what has become a biennial tradition for the board, the counting extended well into the night, delayed by overly cautious officials who said that the need to verify voter tallies outweighed a desire to report timely results.

About 11:30 p.m., results still were trickling out of the elections board even as results poured in from statewide races across the country. Two hours earlier, the Associated Press had already called the Republican primary race for Delaware's sole House seat -- a race that appeared to be decided by a margin similar to the mayoral race. (Delaware's polls also close at 8 p.m.)

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who oversees the elections board and pushed for new election laws that established early voting and same-day registration, said the Board of Elections and Ethics mismanaged the primary.

"I'm so disappointed in this performance," she said. "From point one to point 10, we have colossal mismanagement."

Rokey W. Suleman II, the board's executive director, who has served in the post for about a year, defended the board's showing. "It's the first time we're working on this equipment, and we're more concerned with accuracy over speed," Suleman said.

Cheh said her staff watching elections workers told her that officials could not figure out how to transfer data to the Internet for distribution. Cheh was demanding that the board issue all results to the public.

"I don't care if they have to hang it on a chalkboard and wait for technology later," she said.

Cheh said she had scheduled an oversight hearing on the problems for Oct. 8.

As the clock approached midnight, with about two dozen of the city's 143 precincts reporting just before midnight, Fenty was racking up huge margins in western Ward 3, where his message of improved city services and education reform found a welcome audience. But in the high-voting middle-class neighborhoods of wards 4, 5, and 7, Gray was decimating Fenty. In Precinct 66, in the Lamond Riggs neighborhood in Ward 5, Gray won 1,190 votes to Fenty's 266, marking a dramatic reversal for the mayor.

The count ended a tumultuous day of balloting that culminated in a courtroom where a Superior Court judge rejected Gray's request to extend Election Day voting hours past 8 p.m.

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 Suleman said some mishaps are inevitable when technology is debuted.

"Look at any jurisdiction across the country that has implemented new voting equipment, and you will see problems like we are experiencing today," he said. "We've had some machine issues. We've had some training issues. These are the hiccups I said would occur. The great majority of the city seems to be running smoothly."

After 8 p.m., the focus turned to the ballot count. The biggest question mark surrounded the new same-day registration law and the surge it was expected to cause in the number of provisional ballots, which are subject to review by the elections board.

In the 2006 city primary, provisional ballots accounted for less than 1 percent of the vote. But because the same-day registration law mandates that all new registrants cast provisional ballots, that percentage was expected to rise dramatically, to perhaps 10 percent of Democratic ballots cast. A preliminary tally of the provisional vote is expected Wednesday.

The board will not rule on the provisional ballots until Sept. 22. Over the intervening days, elections staff will review and categorize each of the special ballots under the close watch of campaign attorneys, making a preliminary determination of whether they should be counted. Starting Tuesday, voters who cast provisional ballots can visit http://www.dcboee.org to check whether their vote will be counted.

The final say on the provisional ballots belongs to the three-member elections board, which is operating with only two members after the qualifications of several of Fenty's appointments were questioned by D.C. Council members.

Not all of the provisional ballots have been cast by same-day registrants. Most commonly, a voter will have changed addresses within the District but not updated his or her voter registration. Such "same-day" changes of address have long been allowed. And under federal law, residents who think they should be able to cast a vote must be allowed to. Those not on the rolls are given provisional ballots, also referred to in District law as "special ballots."

The board ended the counting process early Wednesday morning without tallying 15 precincts. Because the voting districts are scattered across the city, they are not expected to appreciably change the result, Suleman said.

Tuesday's balloting was the culmination of a crash 10-month program to prepare the city for a host of new voting procedures.

After the 2008 voting season was marred by mishaps -- insufficient paper ballots for the February presidential primary, a malfunctioning voting machine cartridge in the September local primary and mismailed absentee ballots in the general election -- the D.C. Council, led by Cheh, mandated a sweeping revision to voting equipment and procedures last November.

The new law also introduced two major changes to city elections. The District joined about 30 states that allow early voting without having to provide an excuse. In prior elections, voters were required to attest that they would not be able to visit their precinct on Election Day for one of several reasons. This time, voters could cast ballots starting Aug. 30 at five sites scattered throughout the city. About 22,000 voters took advantage of the opportunity.

More controversial was same-day registration, which 11 states currently allow. An early version of the elections reform bill had same-day registrants casting "live" ballots which would not be reviewed; council members amended the bill to make them provisional ballots subject to post-election review.

To compound the challenge, the city purchased new electronic touch-screen and optical-scan paper ballot voting machines. To prevent double-voting during the early voting period, new networked electronic "poll books" able to instantly update the voter registration database were introduced.

Ahead of the election, some observed questioned whether the council had mandated too much, too soon. "You've put in infinite points of failure," said Doug Lewis, executive director of the National Association of Election Officials, in July. "It's just too much all at once."

Though there were "hiccups," Suleman said, there were few complaints from voters or campaigns about the performance of the new equipment during early voting.

"I think [early voting has] gone fabulously well. There were very, very minor glitches," Cheh said Monday, citing a misprint of some voter registration cards and a few missent absentee ballots. "Really, it's been quite smooth."

Elections officials will repeat the process for the general election, with early voting set to begin on Oct. 18.

Polls done in the weeks leading up to Primary Day showed Gray with substantial leads -- including a Washington Poll that had the D.C. Council chairman ahead by 17 percentage points among likely voters. But many observers expected the race to be much closer, based on Fenty's proven get-out-the-vote organization and superior financial resources.

In 36 years of conducting mayoral elections under Home Rule, the closest was Marion Barry's narrow 1978 Democratic primary triumph over Sterling Tucker and Walter E. Washington. Barry won by fewer than 1,400 votes. The count was in dispute for 11 days before Barry was declared to have assumed an irreversible lead.

Since then, no mayoral election has been decided by fewer than 10 percentage points.

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