- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 15, 2004

District elections officials are defending the way they handled the new touch-screen voting technology, which cost more than $1 million, amid criticism about long delays in tallying the results of this week’s nonbinding presidential primary.

The final results of Tuesday’s primary were not reported until well after midnight because of problems counting votes cast on 150 new touch-screen voting machines.

“It was a miscommunication on the part of the contractor,” said Bill O’Field, spokesman for the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, referring to Sequoia Voting Systems Inc., which manufactured the machines.

Mr. O’Field said Sequoia initially programmed the machines to discount ballots that were blank or included write-in votes, contrary to a directive from elections officials.

Reprogramming the machines on election night to count all ballots caused delays, along with the fact that poll workers had to report election returns by hand rather than by using a modem.

Despite the delays, the new technology marked a significant improvement in voting from the perspective of the disabled population, according to Jim Dickson, vice president for government affairs at the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD).

“It went incredibly well. This was the first time people were able to vote by themselves [without assistance from poll workers]. And that was a very moving experience,” Mr. Dickson said.

The D.C. government purchased the machines from California-based Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. in November 2003 for $1,144,000. The purchase was made as part of the settlement of a civil lawsuit filed against the District government by the AAPD in 2001, claiming that disabled persons did not have equal access to voting machines. The suit was settled without a monetary award in 2002 when D.C. officials promised to purchase touch-screen machines, which would allow disabled persons to vote without assistance from poll workers.

Although advocacy groups for the disabled are giving the technology high marks, others were upset that delays in tallying votes cast using the touch-screen machines kept final election returns from being reported until past midnight.

“It was an embarrassment,” said D.C. Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and co-chairman of the presidential campaign in the District for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

“There’s no excuse for that kind of performance. It makes us look like Florida [in the 2000 presidential election].”

Mr. Dean won the primary election with 43 percent of votes, while civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton came in second with 34 percent. Five other candidates dropped off the ballot when the Democratic National Committee didn’t sanction the District’s first-in-the-nation primary set to draw attention to D.C. statehood issues.

Of 259,322 eligible voters, 42,738, or 16.4 percent voted in the protest Democratic primary, according to the Board of Elections. The voter turnout in the 2000 and 1996 primaries averaged about 8 percent.

D.C. voting rights activists were upset that slow returns led to underreporting in the media of primary election results, with most media reporting voter turnout ranging from 8 percent to 12 percent.

Mr. Evans said he will ask the D.C. Council to hold hearings on the reasons for the long delays in reporting election returns. Elections officials say no ballots were lost and election returns are final, but Mr. Evans said he still is waiting for a ward-by-ward breakdown of votes cast.

“The bottom line is that you don’t hold an election not knowing how to use the machines and having untrained personnel,” Mr. Evans said. “If this was the private sector, you would make it work right. That’s your job.”

The delays are not unprecedented, however. In November 2003, election results in Fairfax County were delayed for several hours and hundreds of votes were lost. The problems stemmed from glitches in new touch-screen machines.

Critics and proponents of the touch-screen technology across the region disagree on whether such delays stem from poll workers’ unfamiliarity with the technology or inherent problems that could lead to vote-tallying errors.

Mr. Evans said he did not disapprove of the new technology, but he was angered by the apparent lack of knowledge among elections officials on how to use the touch-screen machines.

“I don’t care if the machines are new or not,” he said. “You have to know how to use them.”

Mr. O’Field said elections officials will cooperate with any D.C. Council investigations.

Officials from Sequoia did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday.

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