"I'd rather go to jail than administer another election that didn't work," Shari B. Kharasch, the reform-minded head of the city's long-criticized election board, said after a District election fiasco in 1976.
For a time, her campaign to revamp to District's voting system appeared to pay off. Elections started to run increasingly smoothly. But this month's severely disrupted count of primary election ballots seems to have brought an abrupt halt to Kharasch's widely acclaimed winning streak.
"We had four good ones - and then came this," Kharasch said sadly yesterday evening in a telephone interview from her vacation home in Zepp, a town in Virginia's Shenandoah Mountains.
Kharasch's absence from Washington yesterday during a crucial moment in the election board's ballot counting drew immediate criticism from City Council member Marion Barry, the front-runner in the Democratic primary for mayor.
"I find it incredible that the chairman of the election board is not here in this time of crisis."
Barry said in a television interview. He added that Kharasch and other election officials had now "joined my list" of city officials who will be fired if he is elected mayor.
Kharasch was recently appointed to another term as elections board chief by Mayor Walter Washington. That nomination has not yet been confirmed by the City Council.
Kharasch declined to respond to Barry's criticism. She said, however, that she had taken a day off to attend to what she described only as personal business, and she added that she was in touch with other election board officials by telephone during the day."I made sure that (James) Denson (another election board member) was in charge, and I was clearly on call," she said.
Kharasch, a political scientist who holds a doctoral degree from the University of Maryland, sought to make it clear that she did not intend to duck responsibility for the troubles that have beset this month's vote tabulation.
"Ultimately, if it runs poorly and we do not do something about it, it's our responsibility," she said. "It's a very difficult responsibility, believe me."
But Kharasch also attributed many of the Board of Elections and Ethics' difficulties to what she described as a failure by the city and federal governments to provide sufficient funds to computerize and automate the District' electoral registration and vote-counting systems. She also blamed the election board's staff for failing to alert the board until Wednesday to serious uncertainties posed by the existence of a large number of apparently uncounted ballots.
Though similar problems had been apparent on a small scale in other recent elections, Kharasch added, they became especially evident this month because of the closeness of the maycral contest. "I don't think the system works," she said.
Such complaints have been repeated by election officials for some time. Last year, after a congressional cut in funds for modernizing the city's voting equipment, Kharasch asserted, "We've lost our opportunity to get into the 20th century."
There also were echoes of old quarrels yesterday. Norval E. Perksins, who lost his job as the election board's executive director in a frequently bitter dispute, primarily with Kharasch, sharply criticized his old foe in a telephone interview. "The present chairperson said that all elections were going to run without problems. This one shows that she wasn't able to do that," Perkins said. "They went fumbling on ahead."
District of Columbia elections had compiled a history of mishaps. mismanagement and confusion long before Kharasch was appointed to head the elections board in August 1975.
In 1972, an election count was delayed for two hours because computer cards had become swollen from humidity and could not be inserted into the vote-counting machines.
In the 1974 primary, the vote tabulation took 12 days. After failing to arrive at a satisfactory count by relying on automated equipment, the elections board decided to tabulate all the ballots by hand. One city report on the fiasco blamed it on a computer firm's repeated failure to meet deadlines, test its equipment adequately and operate its machinery properly.
In a February 1976, election for members of the newly created Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, two ballot boxes fell off trucks and were recovered only by luck. Results in some races, in addition, were uncertain for days.
In a May 1976 primary for the District's congressional delegate and for delegates to national Democratic and Republican conventions, ballots were not completely tabulated until midnight the next day. Confusion also reigned because of widespread existence of improperly marked ballots. It was this election that prompted Kharasch's remark that she would prefer jail to a similar episode.