- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2004

District elections officials yesterday apologized for mistakes made during the Jan. 13 presidential primary, but disputed criticism that their handling of the contest was a national embarrassment.

“The District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics has been criticized by several elected officials for certain aspects of the primary,” Board Chairman Benjamin F. Wilson told the D.C. Council yesterday. “Some of this criticism is valid.”

Mr. Wilson said the agency accepts blame for not mailing voter guides out on time, but added that officials should not be blamed for failing to report election results until after midnight.

“The board will further pledge to make every effort to speed up final election night results,” Mr. Wilson said. “However, under no circumstances, shall the board sacrifice accuracy for speed.”

But Mr. Wilson continued to blame the U.S. Postal Service for the late delivery of voter guides. He said the board mailed the guides on Jan. 6 so they should have reached voters before the election.

Earlier this week a postal service spokeswoman said the board didn’t mail some guides until as late as Jan. 9, and that election officials paid standard rather than political mailing rates, which would have expedited handling.

D.C. Council member Vincent Orange, Ward 5 Democrat, said the elections board performed well, despite criticism from Council members Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, and Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat.

“We came out with flying colors,” Mr. Orange said.

D.C. Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, who had called the board’s performance “an embarrassment” and likened it to Florida elections officials’ handling of the 2000 general election, did not attend yesterday’s nearly five-hour hearing.

Mr. Graham had harsh words for the elections board. A supporter of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Mr. Graham said he was unable to tell the candidate the election results during a 10:15 p.m. phone conversation — more than two hours after polls closed.

“What’s the point of having an election if you don’t have the results?” Mr. Graham asked. “We didn’t know how to count the ballots.”

Final results of the nonbinding presidential primary as reported after midnight showed Mr. Dean won with 42.7 percent of the vote over the Rev. Al Sharpton, who received 34.3 percent.

Mr. Graham told the board the delayed results and late voter guides reflect poorly on the District. “I think you get a failing grade,” he told the board.

Elections officials said the final results took so long to report because cartridges from new touch-screen voting machines had to be hand-delivered to board headquarters after the polls closed.

Many poll workers did not deliver the cartridges until after they had finished cleaning up and locking their precincts. Board officials said from now on they will make sure poll workers deliver the cartridges as soon as the polls close.

Mr. Fenty said his office mostly received complaints about late voter guides. “It’s really time for bureaucrats to accept responsibility when things do not go right,” Mr. Fenty said. “That’s the first step.”

However, advocates for the disabled gave the board high marks for the new touch-screen machines, which allowed persons with disabilities to vote without assistance from poll workers.

“I still get tears in my eyes when I realize I was able to vote in secrecy and in private,” said Jim Dickson, vice president of D.C.-based American Association of People with Disabilities.

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