- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2003

Fairfax County officials said it was the slowest election count in recent memory.

It took 21 hours after the polls closed Nov. 4 for all 225 precincts in the county to file their final election results — even though officials spent $3.5 million for new wireless voting machines designed to make the process simpler and faster.

In the aftermath, Republicans and Democrats alike criticized the high-tech machines. One Republican candidate claimed the machines could have cost her the election by subtracting votes from her. Republicans also filed a legal challenge on Election Day claiming other voting irregularities.

The WINvote (Wireless Information Network) machines were an attempt by Virginia’s most populous county to update its voting system to comply with the Help America Vote Act, which provides federal funding to counties that modernize voting equipment before the 2004 presidential primary.

Fairfax’s problems were just the latest snag for voting equipment vendors around the country.

California’s secretary of state suspended the adoption of new touch screens about two weeks ago and began an investigation into uncertified software used by voting equipment giant Diebold Inc.

Computer programmers have been warning elections officials for more than a year that electronic systems could be vulnerable to hackers and software bugs.

“The procedures were very poorly thought-out for these machines. They seemed to have a lot of technological flaws,” said the Fairfax Republicans’ attorney, Christopher T. Craig, who argued that the removal of 10 machines for repairs on Election Day violated state law.

“You don’t want technology to outrun credibility and ballot integrity.”

The WINvote machines, developed by Advanced Voting Systems of Frisco, Texas, first appeared in a local Mississippi election in 2001. The 9-pound machines resemble laptop computers, with the names of candidates and instructions displayed on 15-inch color screens.

To make a selection, voters simply touch a candidate’s name on-screen and an “X” appears. At the end of the process, a checklist ensures voters’ selections are correct. Local precincts send the results by modem to a central database for tabulation.

“This voting system has more functionality than any system in the marketplace,” Advanced Voting Systems President and Chief Executive Officer Howard Van Pelt said by telephone. “We asked every voter we could see [in Fairfax] and every poll worker, and they all loved it.”

But Mr. Van Pelt was quick to acknowledge that no system is perfect.

“We like to think we won’t have any problems, but we do,” he said.

The problems in Fairfax began early in the day for at-large school board member Rita S. Thompson. A supporter told her that when he tried to vote for her, the “X” by her name would disappear after a few seconds. After repeated tries, the “X” finally stuck, but he was worried that the same thing could happen to other voters.

Miss Thompson said she heard the same story throughout the day as she canvassed polling places. Her 77,796 votes fell 1,662 shy of re-election.

“It’s hard enough being a candidate; it’s not a good feeling when something else is messing with the process,” she said. “I do think it had an effect on the outcome.”

Miss Thompson lodged a complaint and one machine was taken out of service for repairs, Mr. Van Pelt said. Mr. Van Pelt said he didn’t know what caused the glitch, but he didn’t believe Miss Thompson lost any votes because of it.

“There were 12 votes on that machine when we took it out of service, and we never put it back in service,” he said.

But nine other machines were taken out for repair for various malfunctions during the day, election officials said. Republicans said this violated election law, although later tests showed the machines had the same number of votes when they left the polling places as when they returned.

Mr. Craig said Republicans now believe the problems went beyond the 10 machines that were serviced. They are calling for an independent investigation into the voting system, Mr. Craig said.

Democrats also want to know what went wrong. Gerald E. Connolly, chairman-elect of the county Board of Supervisors, said two of four machines in his precinct were not working, and were fixed at the site. He also said the machine on which he voted initially did not allow him to pick at-large school board members.

“Obviously, the number of problems was greater than 10,” Mr. Connolly said. “You have double the turnout you had in this election, then what are you going to do?”

Margaret K. Luca, secretary of the county’s Board of Elections, downplayed the issue, saying she received only one complaint on Election Day — from a supporter of Miss Thompson.

She disputed any accusations of dropped or missed votes. “I would be hard-pressed to believe someone would be satisfied leaving the polling place and not seeing the name of the person they voted for on the summary screen. It’s clearly printed under the person’s name.”

When the polls closed at 7 p.m., most precincts tried to send their numbers at the same time, overloading the main computer server. More than half of precincts resorted to the old-fashioned telephone to post results, while some officials brought the numbers to county headquarters themselves.

Final results weren’t posted until 4:30 p.m. the next day.

Miss Luca said the county would fix the modem problem before the Democratic presidential primary in February to avoid another system crash.

Mr. Van Pelt, too, said tests would be run to determine what caused the one known machine to “intermittently” subtract votes from the touch screen. He called the problem an anomaly, noting that six other elections nationwide using the WINvote machines on Nov. 4 reported no difficulties.

“In every single election in the world that has ever been run, none has run perfectly,” he said.

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