The Democratic mayoral primary election in Washington was thrown into turmoil and doubt yesterday with the revelation that up to 7,000 ballots have not been counted because they were "unread" by electronic counting machines.
The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics made the surprise disclosure just as City Council member Marion Barry pronounced himself the victor in the primary with a 1,400 vote lead over Council Chairman Sterling Tucker. Incumbent Mayor Walter E. Washington is in the third place.
The discovery of the "unread" ballots was the latest in a series of foulups and delays in the vote-counting since the primary was held Sept. 12.
Elections board officials said the tedious process of hand-counting the 7,000 ballots will begin today and may not be completed until late tomorrow.
Officials and campaign observers said some of the ballots may be blank or unrelated to the mayoral race, but they estimated 4,000 to 5,000 of them - a number far greater than the present vote spread between Barry and Tucker - could be added to the mayoral totals.
Althouth the additional ballots technically keep a cloud over the outcome, most observers said they do not expect Tucker or Washington to catch Barry.
As of last night, an unofficial count of ballots counted so far in the Democratic primary showed these results:[TABLE OMITTED]
The unread ballots could also affect the outcome of close races for City Council seats in Wards 5 and 6. In leading challegeer Patricia Press by fewer than 100 votes.
In Ward 5, challenger Robert Artisst, trailing incumbent William Spaulding by about 300 votes, asked the D.C. Superior Court Yesterday to set aside the ward election, claiming various irregularities including lack of ballots for potential voters in precinct 69 on Sept. 12. A hearing was scheduled for Monday.
After days of cautious waiting, Barry called a news conference late yesterday, before the latest ballot counting problem was revealed, to declare himself the winner of the primary.
"I thought today I'd put an end to the speculation about who I think is the winner in the Democratic primary," Barry said at a news conference outside his downtowns headquarters. "It's very clear the people have chosen me. I'm now declaring myself the winner."
He was careful not to declare himself mayor-elect, however, and said he would now dedicate himself to getting out a victory vote in the November general election when he faces Republican challenger Arthur Fletcher.
Barry, in a WJLA-Channel 7 television interview, last night, said that he was still condifent of his primary victory despite the latest confusion in the election counting. He said the balloting problems and the election board's performance reflected badly on the nation's capital but would encourage his supporters to work all the harder in the November election.
"We're dismayed at all the bumbling and bungling" in the current city government, Barry said, promising - as he had not done earlier in the day - to impose a major shake-up of the elections board when he takes office.
Even as Barry was bouncing back and forth between being a apparent Democratic nominee and a not-so-apparent nominee. Mayor Washington has already set in motion the machinery for making a transition in city government.
The mayor met for nearly an hour yesterday with many of his department heads and, according to one official who attended the meeting told the department heads that the still incomplete election totals indicated that there would probably be a new administration in city hall Jan. 2.
Washington, who later told a reporter that he has met with Barry and hopes to make possible a "smooth transition" from one administration to the next, urged the department heads to be cooperative with Barry as wells, the official said.
The official said the meeting was "very upbeat" and Washington was relaxed and smilling throughout most of it.
Disclosure of the 7,000 unread ballots came only after Barry campaign observer Phil Ogilvie asked the elections board Wednesday to make a check of many unread ballots there might be.
Ogilvie said he had become concerned because voters in some precincts had been given blue ball point pens by precint workers to mark their ballots on SEPT. 12. The electronic ballot counting machines - called Caltecs - do not "read" or recognize marks by red and some shades of blud ball point pens and thus record the ballots as blank.
Voting booths in the city's 137 precincts were supposed to be equipped with eigher black felt tip pens or soft lead pencils whose marks are more easily read by the Valtec scanning devices, elections administrator Mary Rodgers said.
After ballots have been fed into a Valtec, an adding machine tape in the Valtec gives totals for the candidates on the ballots. The adding machine tape also gives the total number of "unread" or blank ballots.
Elections officials then tranfer the Valtec adding machine tape data to key punch cards which in turn are fed into the city's SHARE computer to produce a citywide printout of the election results.
In the past, however, key punch operators have deleted the precinct-by-precinct totals of "unread" ballots from the punch cards as a time-saving measure.
That was done this time as well and when Ogilvie asked for citywide "unread" available. The elections board ordered the totals produced late Wednesday.
"We weren't award of the largeness of the (citywide) total until late last night (Wednesday) or early this morning," said elections adminsitrator Rodgers.
Asked why the "unread" totals were not included in the Sept. 12 computer printout because of the closeness of the election, board systems analyst Richard Owens said. "There was no particular reason . . . We usually just haven't done it in the past."
Disclosure of the 7,000 unrerad ballots set off a new round of confusion in the elections board's sprawling, paper-strewn offices on the ground floor of the District Building.
Only one of the three elections board members - Republican James Denson - was readily available during the day for election workers and reporters to speak to.
Shari Harasch, head of the board and a Democrat, never showed up yesterday. Board general council Winfred Mundle said Kharasch had left for her country home in Virginia.
Board figures showed a total of at least 7,000 unread ballots. However, about 2,360 of those came from Ward 1, where voters were givern a separate ballot from mid-term democratic convention delegate candidates. Rodgers said she believes "the vast majority" of these ballots were left unmarked by voters because of their unfamiliarity with the convention and the names of the candidates. These ballots will not affect the mayoral totals.
She acknowledged that other ballots were marked with "unreadable" ball point pens, some of which may have been the personal pens of the voters and some of which may have been inadvertently provided by precinct workers. Also, some voters may have placed the marks for their preferred candidates outside the rectangular boxes adjacent to the candidates' names, making them unreadable by the Valtec scanners. With the scheduled hand count today, most of these will be included as valid, she said.
Barry had begun his day confidently enough, arriving at his campaign headquarters shortly before 10 a.m. and stuffing the obligatory tie he carried with him into his office mailbox.
Settling into a private office overlooking G Street NW - and returning the waves of two cooks at Murphy's lunch counter who stepped away from their kitchen posts to catch a glimpse of him - Barry kept busy most of yesterday morning making telephone calls.
Ogilvie, his "watcher" in the vote tabulations, was first on his list. Barry asked for the latest status report on the count and then told Oglivie to prepare a memo on what could be done to improve the ballot tallying system once he is mayor.
"This in-between stuff is just a waste of my time. I want to get the final results, that's all," Barry said. "Just hold down the fort and make sure we keep it."
Another call on the list was to Conrad Smith, president of the D.C. Board of Education, and during his conversation Barry went "off the record" as he caught up on details of a dispute between the board and the city's teachers.
He also continued constituent service work as an at-large councilman, asking an aide to check with a city agency on a woman's application for a student loan.
Barry has had to divide his time this way since Sept. 12, recharging his batteries for the Nov. 7 general election and getting down to the business of planning the new city administration that he expects to head come January.
"I'm not quite the mayor-elect yet," said Barry, who took a respite from office work and staff meetings to lunch at Murphy's on bean soup and crab cakes. Even there, he displayed the dual moods that seem to be his these days.
Waiting for waitresses to clear a place for him, Barry started to strike up a conversation with Brenda Phelps, a luncher, who eyed him with indifference until he introduced himself.
"I'm Marion Barry," he said, holding out his hand in greeting. A no long indifferent Phelps almost dropped her fork. And yes, she assured Barry, she would vote for him in November.
Yet to one of the Murphy cooks who asked him how he was doing, Barry replied gleefully, "I'm just winning, that's all."
Reminded that a Fletcher victory in November would be the first time a Republican has overcome a gargantuan democratic registration to become mayor, Barry retored: "Well, it's the first time in history I've upset all these other candidates, too."
Indeed, according to campaign aides, taking the November election for granted is what everyone is being cautioned against.
For the first time since the primary Barry's key staff of 25 volunteer and paid workers met yesterday to assess the results and plan for the future. The word from campaign director Ivanhoe Donaldson, according to one aide, was to "respect the process" of the general election and not risk a low voter turnout.
Barry's staff functioned informally around him yesterday but basked in his praise as devoted and hardworking and as the "best organization" in the campaign. He said he likes to be reachable to his staff, "not God-like," but "I'm still the bottom line."
The Barry bandwagon is filling up fast, according to the candidate and some aides. He has been in touch with workers for Mayor Washington and Council Chairman Tucker, and even some Republicans have tested the climate - and opportunities - that might await them if they join Barry's campaign.
Barry is expected to seek support from the ministers and labor groups who backed the mayor, and yesterday he was getting the names of key labor officials to contact.
In the meantime, Barry said, he is enjoying the daily feedback he gets from supporters who are clearly delighted with the election's outcome.
"People genuinely feel excited," he said. "it's not just political. And it's a great feeling to know the election created that kind of a psychological lift."
For his most dedicated election workers yesterday, Barry occasionally interrupted his activities to autograph pictures and politial cartoons.
One female aide, joking playfully out of Barry's earshot, queried other workers: "Did you ever notice that if Burt Reynolds were black, he'd look a lot like Marion?"
Barry, who plans to take a three-day rest from campaign activities beginning Saturday, said in the television interview he expected to get all the support he needs to win the November election.
And once the election foul-ups are out of the way, he said, "we're going to have a great mayor and a great government."