D.C. elections board, scolded by politicians, defends counting pace, cites crushing pressures

Voters in D.C. cast ballots Tuesday in the closely watched Democratic primary race for mayor between Adrian Fenty and Vincent C. Gray.
By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 11:18 PM

District elections officials defended their primary-night performance Wednesday after city leaders accused them of "mismanagement" that delayed vote tallies for hours, well after most other jurisdictions had reported their results.

Presumptive Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray and others heavily criticized the Board of Elections and Ethics for delayed poll openings, long lines and, most especially, an agonizingly late final count Tuesday night.

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), whose committee oversees city elections, accused the board of "colossal mismanagement."

But in a special meeting Wednesday, Togo D. West Jr., the board's chairman, struck back. "If you're going to use the term mismanagement or gross mismanagement where there has been neither mismanagement nor any gross behavior," he said, "then you need to be very careful about your facts and about the people about whom you speak."

West said board executives had done yeomen's work under a crushing mandate to implement early voting, same-day registration and a host of new machines all at once.

Responding to West's criticism of her comments, Cheh said: "I don't know what to call that other than mismanagement. It's supposed to run smoothly. That's the way I see it."

She added: "If we can't get out results three hours after [polls close], when every other jurisdiction that had a contest had something out at that point, it almost speaks for itself that we have a problem."

It actually took nearly six hours before elections officials had reported enough precincts to declare winners in nine city Democratic races - none of which was any closer than the 9 percentage points that represented the margin in the headline clash between Gray and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

Elections officials said the delays can be attributed in part to the city's optical-scan ballots, whose results are recorded on electronic cartridges that cannot be read until they are "closed" at the end of the voting period. Also, Tuesday was the first time most poll workers had used the new equipment in an actual vote, slowing the process of closing the machines. A third factor was the election board's emphasis on accuracy over speed after polls closed.

"If you want speed, you will get inaccurate results," said Rokey W. Suleman II, the elections board's chief executive. "If we are fast and we release inaccurate results, we will be pilloried in the press."

Gray on Wednesday continued to express "concern" about the voting. On Tuesday afternoon, he filed an emergency court petition to extend poll hours after some precincts' openings were delayed.

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

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