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

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.

About 11:30 p.m., results were still just beginning to trickle out 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 closed at 8 p.m.)

Counting ceased about 2 a.m., with about 90 percent of D.C. precincts tallied, because the cartridges of some voting machines scattered across the city had not made it to election headquarters. The remaining precincts were tallied Wednesday afternoon, with more than 10,000 absentee and provisional ballots still to be counted in the coming days.

Jack Evans, the council's longest-serving member, joined the chorus disparaging the elections board Wednesday, calling the late results "inexcusable."

"You can't even have a victory party anymore," said Evans (D-Ward 2).

Evans is among the voters who remember when the "morning returns" were posted almost immediately after polls closed, followed by the evening tallies an hour or two later. That procedure dates to the days of paper punch-card ballots, which were counted and tabulated at the board's headquarters. At noon, poll workers would gather the morning ballots and take them downtown for an early count.

But when the city adopted optical-scan ballots, the midday tallies ended.

Many wondered why the more than 22,000 early votes were not tallied earlier. "At least we would have had something to work with," said William O'Field, a former D.C. elections official who is now a consultant.

Suleman explained that there were concerns about the security of the tabulation process if done before polls were closed.

Also, for the first time, D.C. law mandated that poll workers print and post a paper tally of each precinct's results before sending the cartridges to board headquarters. There, workers compared the numbers downloaded from the cartridges with the printout before posting them to a Web site. Software incompatibilities created additional delays in publicly reporting the results.

Returns will come "significantly faster" in November, Suleman said.

Tuesday's other problems were also attributed more to poll worker inexperience than issues with the machines themselves, which had many questioning worker preparation.

"The training did not do what it needed to do," said O'Field, who said he visited some precincts Tuesday that were short of workers.

Suleman noted that unfamiliarity will always be an issue with new equipment, especially new technology like the electronic poll books deployed for the first time this year. They resemble small laptops.

"The great majority [of poll workers] are senior citizens," Suleman said. "They're not the most tech-savvy folks. Some are spectacular. Some are less spectacular."

Cheh said poll workers' "performance issues are one of management."

But she called the city's 15 days of early voting "an unqualified success" - an assessment few have quibbled with. And she expressed confidence Wednesday in Suleman's ability to prepare for the November elections.

West seconded that assessment. The board's staff, he said, "did what it was asked to do."

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