It took more than 21 hours from the time polls closed Tuesday night for Fairfax County, the putative high-tech capital of the region, to get final election results from its new, computerized vote machines.
Widespread problems in the system, which the county paid $3.5 million to install, also opened the door to possible election challenges by party leaders and candidates.
School Board member Rita S. Thompson (R), who lost a close race to retain her at-large seat, said yesterday that the new computers might have taken votes from her. Voters in three precincts reported that when they attempted to vote for her, the machines initially displayed an "x" next to her name but then, after a few seconds, the "x" disappeared.
In response to Thompson's complaints, county officials tested one of the machines in question yesterday and discovered that it seemed to subtract a vote for Thompson in about "one out of a hundred tries," said Margaret K. Luca, secretary of the county Board of Elections.
"It's hard not to think that I have been robbed," said Thompson, whose 77,796 recorded votes left her 1,662 shy of reelection. She is considering her next step, and said she was wary of challenging the election results: "I'm not sure the county as a whole is up for that. I'm not sure I'm up for that."
Meanwhile, attorneys for local Republicans and GOP candidate Mychele B. Brickner, who lost her bid to chair the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, went before a Circuit Court judge yesterday morning, asking him to keep 10 voting machines under lock and key and not to include their tabulations in the results. The machines, from nine precincts scattered across the county, broke down about midday Tuesday and were brought to the county government center for repairs and then returned to the polls -- a violation of election law, Republicans argued.
The judge said the activity logs of all 10 machines will be inspected this week, with members of both major parties present.
"It's like Florida in many ways," said the Republicans' attorney, Christopher T. Craig, referring to that state's 2000 presidential ballot-counting controversy. "This is about ballot integrity. . . . A lot of people have been telling us they couldn't vote for someone. . . . I have been hearing that there are a lot of problems" with the county's new WINvote computer technology.
As more details emerged yesterday, county officials defended the system. Luca insisted that most of the problems had less to do with computer glitches than human error.
"The new machines get an A-plus," she said. "It's the plan to collect the vote that gets the failing grade."
Fairfax purchased the 1,000 touch-screen vote machines this year from Advanced Voting Solutions of Frisco, Tex. The machines, which resemble laptop computers, were used countywide Tuesday for the first time, and the problems that resulted mirrored what occurred in Montgomery County last year when similar new technology was used. The equipment in Montgomery County was blamed for delayed results and confusion at the polls.
Fairfax officials had confidently promised that their machinery would work much better, citing a battery of tests conducted last week. They also predicted that the system would greatly speed the reporting of results.
Instead, it churned out one of the slowest vote counts in memory.
Much of the delay occurred at 7 p.m. when the polls closed. Most of the county's 223 precincts attempted to send in their computer tallies at once, overloading the system. Many poll officials ended up calling in their numbers, but some couldn't get through and instead drove their results to the county government center.
In at least 19 precincts, results were officially sealed in the mistaken assumption that they had been sent by computer modem, officials said yesterday. Sealed results cannot be opened unless all three election board members are present, which led to further delays.
In addition, software errors kept the results from two precincts from being posted until about 4:30 yesterday afternoon.
"Everyone seems to be aghast at how this could happen," Thompson said. "But this seems like something you could have had the foresight to see."
John Service, 50, of North Springfield said it took him four or five tries to register his vote for Thompson, and he wondered whether some voters were disenfranchised. "I am concerned about voters who might have been in a rush and didn't go back and check to make sure all the names [they intended to vote for] appeared on the final ballot," he said.
The glitches forced a handful of precincts to return to paper ballots. And even at polls where computer problems didn't arise, voter unfamiliarity with the technology created long lines.
Some voters gave up -- a thought that crossed Jeff Fisher's mind.
Fisher, 43, of Annandale said he almost walked out of his polling place when a woman in front of him spent 10 minutes getting through the ballot.
Others, though, wondered why so many people had problems with the machines. "I thought it was very easy to vote, and I'm not even that bright of a kid," Al Richards, 61, of Falls Church said.