The Charlotte Observer
Objective: Averting election fiascoes
N.C. to look at machines, early voting, human error
Sun, Nov. 14, 2004
MICHELLE CROUCH AND ANN DOSS HELMS
As exhausted election staffs catch their breath, federal and state officials are circling to pick apart North Carolina's vote-counting errors and figure out how to fix them.
A state study commission will convene as early as this week to decide how North Carolina's hodgepodge of voting machines ... should be overhauled.
Federal auditing officials will meet Monday to review a request from six congressional Democrats ... for an investigation of voting problems in North Carolina and other states.
N.C. election officials are pondering whether problems created by the state's early voting season -- including overworked and error-prone election workers -- outweigh the convenience that drew almost a million people to the polls in October.
As recounts and protests go on, the quest to restore voter confidence takes center stage.
National experts call Carteret County's lost votes one of the worst election flubs this year.
"You should never get into a situation where it throws votes on the floor," said University of Iowa computer science professor Douglas Jones, a voting-machine expert. "That many votes literally lost forever may be a new record."
Other goofs, including an election night miscount in Mecklenburg and the delayed discovery of 13,200 ballots in Gaston County, are embarrassing but not unusual, national and state experts say. Every big election brings snarls, and other states saw worse glitches.
But voters and officials aren't content to shrug off errors. ...
Federal prosecutors say they're keeping an eye on North Carolina's voting issues, but no evidence of fraud has emerged.
Instead, many say, preventing a replay of this year's bungles requires better voting machines, more and better staffers and fine-tuning of new election laws.
South Carolina had some delays when poll workers had trouble starting new voting machines on Election Day. But there have been no reports of lost votes or counting errors, officials say.
Avoiding electronic limbo
The Carteret County fiasco has renewed interest in machines that leave a paper trail. The mechanics of N.C. voting vary from county to county, ranging from punch cards to touch-screen machines.
The federal Help America Vote Act, ... provides $53 million to improve N.C. voting machines. Officials say it would cost $80 million to replace all machines statewide.
The federal law also requires the state to create a study commission on voting machines. The legislature complied -- but realized after Election Day that they'd neglected to appoint legislators.
Last week they scrambled to name members and start meeting.
N.C. Elections Board members recently visited Las Vegas to check out Nevada voting machines, which display a paper copy of each ballot behind glass. Voters can make sure it's correct before pushing the button. Normally, votes are tallied electronically. But the paper provides backup for situations like Carteret County's.
There, outdated software consigned 4,500 ballots to electronic oblivion with no backup, raising the prospect of a statewide re-vote for agriculture commissioner.
"Our computer guy is just beside himself with grief," said UniLect President Jack Gerbel, whose California company made the machine.
Carteret County officials had been assured the machine would take 10,000 ballots, but the software had not been updated. When the machine hit its limit, Gerbel insists, the screen said "voter log full." But it didn't stop voters from thinking they'd voted, and poll workers say they never saw the signal.
"From now on," Gerbel said, "it will stop and not let any other votes be counted."
National experts reacted with the equivalent of "Well, duh!"
"You have to wonder what kind of bonehead would design a computer system that would hit capacity, then continue to take votes and just throw them away," said Stanford University computer science professor David Dill.
To err is human
Blunders are inevitable, but N.C. officials worry that early voting greased the track for mistakes.
"Every day for three weeks (election workers) have to treat like Election Day," said state elections board member Chuck Winfree of Greensboro. ...
South Carolina did not conduct early voting.
Gaston County officials omitted 12,000 early votes and all 1,209 votes from one Dallas precinct out of its initial tally.
The omissions were discovered only after state election officials demanded an explanation of how the reported 45 percent voter turnout -- compared with 63 percent statewide -- could jibe with hours-long voting lines throughout the county.
One of three full-time employees at the Gaston elections office left just before the election. The two who remained said they had each worked more than 300 hours in October -- 10 hours a day, seven days a week -- and 20 hours more on Nov. 2. Everyone has come down sick with something.
"We're all so stressed and strung-out and tired," said Gaston Elections Director Sandra Page. "We're all so bloody shell-shocked that we got pushed to our limit, and that's what happened."
In Mecklenburg, the workload overwhelmed the election night staff, which included temporary employees and four people brought in from the county's information-technology office.
Because of time pressure, officials tried to speed things up, using a process that disabled fail-safe procedures in their software, said Daniel Binford, the staffer in charge of technology.
Unofficial totals were posted around midnight. But the next day, a Republican campaign worker noticed that the early results showed more votes than voters.
After six days of investigating, Elections Director Michael Dickerson announced that some precincts' votes had been downloaded twice or three times and others not tallied at all.
The staff strain raises a perplexing question: How can counties have enough well-trained people to handle a job that peaks every four years, when presidential elections drive up turnout?
Mecklenburg and Gaston both rely heavily on temporary workers during election season. Richard Jordan, a member of the Gaston Board of Elections, said county commissioners should find money for more election workers and more machines.
Revamp the rules?
This election also brought a flurry of new rules and delays.
Most controversial is the N.C. law allowing voters to cast provisional ballots in any precinct. That meant election staffs not only had to figure out whether voters were really registered to vote, but in many cases had to review each ballot to figure out which races they could vote in.
For the first time in history, North Carolina did not have official results a week after Election Day. Six counties, including Mecklenburg and Catawba, were still counting provisional ballots.
Some people say more computers are the answer: If poll workers had access to computers that could verify voters' registration, those people could be cleared to cast regular ballots.
But others say it's time to cut convenience to improve efficiency.
N.C. Rep. Paul Stam, an Apex Republican who co-chaired the House committee on election laws during the last session, says he'd prefer eliminating the partial ballots, instead tallying provisionals only when the voter was at the correct precinct.
U.S. Rep. Watt, the Charlotte Democrat, says he wants the federal Government Accountability Office to scrutinize the laws and processes nationwide.
"The objective ultimately is to get to a system where people vote," he said, "and feel that their vote is being counted."