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Errors plague voting process in Ohio, Pa.

Published: Wed, Nov 3, 2004

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Mercer County used paper ballots in some precincts.

VINDICATOR STAFF REPORT

So much for advanced computer voting technology.

Mahoning and Mercer — the only counties in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys to use electronic voting machines and among only a handful in Ohio and Pennsylvania with the technology — encountered a series of problems that delayed results for hours Tuesday.

The Mahoning County Board of Elections will begin an investigation immediately to find out the sources of the problems, said Mark Munroe, the agency's chairman.

Problems in 16 of the county's 312 precincts caused the results in Mahoning to be held up for about three hours as election employees checked the machines' tallies at the election board. The results are supposed to be tabulated at the precinct locations. The results were finalized about 1:30 a.m. today. The county has 1,162 electronic voting machines.

Human, computer errors

The problems were a combination of human and computer errors, Munroe said.

"We've never seen anything like this before," he said.

Of the 16 precincts, 11 were in Youngstown, two in Boardman, one in Jackson Township, one in Craig Beach, and one in Washingtonville.

Some of the machines malfunctioned, others had problems with the personal electronic ballot cartridge placed into the machines before each vote to count the ballots, and other problems were caused by human error, Munroe said.

The human error specifically was precinct officials getting nervous or overwhelmed by the number of people voting, and then failing to properly follow protocol to count the ballots in the machine, he said.

That led to some races showing votes of negative 25 million, Munroe said.

"The numbers were nonsensical so we knew there were problems," he said.

There were similar problems at four or five other Mahoning precincts, but poll officials there were alert enough to catch the problems, and fix them, said Thomas McCabe, deputy elections director.

Other problems

There were other problems with Mahoning machines. One in Boardman Precinct 44 had to be removed because the glass on top of the electronic screen was too far from the screen, making it difficult for people to use their fingers to cast ballots, Munroe said. A screen went blank on a Youngstown voter while he cast his ballot, he said.

Also, there were 20 to 30 machines that needed to be recalibrated during the voting process because some votes for a candidate were being counted for that candidate's opponent, Munroe said.

There are a variety of reasons for that problem, including static electricity, Munroe said. Munroe said he strongly believes that the calibration issue didn't mark people's votes improperly because when a vote is cast for a candidate, their name is lit up in bright blue and the name comes up as a review of a vote before it is finalized.

About a dozen machines needed to be reset because they essentially froze.

Also, about 300 paper absentee ballots were damaged while being opened in Mahoning, McCabe said. The county used smaller envelopes than usual, and damaged 300 absentee ballots, but didn't destroy them. A Democrat and a Republican remarked the damaged ballots, he said.

In Mercer County

Mercer County's director of elections said it was a computer software glitch that caused touch-screen voting machines to malfunction in about a dozen precincts Tuesday. The election board didn't finish counting ballots in Mercer until about 3:30 a.m. today.Election workers in Mercer County raced to take paper ballots to polling places in the Shenango Valley after a series of computer errors.

"I don't know what happened," said James Bennington, who had been assured Friday that all 250 of the county's touch-screen units had been checked and rechecked. The county has 100 voting precincts.

Keith Jenkins, director of the county's computer department, agreed that it was a software malfunction and said repeated calls to UniLect Corp., the company that sold the machines to the county in 2001, failed to resolve the problem.

Mercer County commissioners, doubling as the county election board, vowed to investigate, noting the probe was started immediately to find out what happened, why it happened and how it can be prevented from happening again.

Bennington said the county prepares the ballot for the "infopacs" that are inserted into the machines but that UniLect licenses that software. The ballot was prepared correctly, he said, adding that most of the serious computer glitches occurred in the southwestern part of the county that is part of the 4th Congressional District.

Precincts in Hermitage, Farrell, Wheatland, West Middlesex, Shenango Township and Sharon experienced the most serious machine difficulties, some from the moment the polls opened at 7 a.m. Some machines never operated, some offered only black screens and some required voters to vote backwards, starting on the last page of the touch-screen system and working back to the front page.

Never worked

Some of those systems never came back on line, leaving poll workers to resort to handing out paper ballots for people to cast their votes. The county had about 2,000 paper ballots prepared in advance for emergencies, but the problem was so great that "a couple thousand more" were printed and hauled out to the precincts as they ran low or ran out of ballots.

Bennington said some precincts in Hermitage, Farrell, Wheatland, Shenango Township and West Middlesex never got their machines back on line. The end result was thousands of paper ballots that workers at each precinct had to count and add to the total votes.

James Epstein, Mercer County district attorney, said there was no evidence that the problems were deliberately caused or the result of a criminal act. It was basically a machine malfunction, he said, adding that the election board will investigate the situation.

Some glitches also marred voting in Trumbull and Columbiana counties, but nothing serious enough to cause major disruption.

Forgery in Trumbull

In Trumbull County, a voter in Warren Township precinct D arrived at the polls to discover that someone had already voted in her name. The person who used her name apparently forged her signature and wrote that she lived at a different address, said Josh Garris, a Republican observer at the Trumbull elections board.

After being told by precinct judges that she had already voted and could not vote again, she came to the board of elections, where she was allowed to cast a regular ballot, Garris said. Officials will investigate.

Police were called to a polling station in Riverview Apartments in Warren Precinct 1B after a man refused to stop hanging signs on a fence outside. The fence was within the immediate area of the polling station entrance where political activity is prohibited, assistant board director Rokey Suleman II said.

Both the Democratic and Republican challengers posted at Warren 2E were tossed from the polling station after precinct judges complained they were disruptive, officials said.

"It was a pretty smooth election," Suleman said. "With all the problems that could have erupted, none did."

The Trumbull elections board met Tuesday, and rejected 53 absentee ballots because of problems with signatures. Most of those rejected bore no signature. Others had been signed by someone other than the person casting the ballot. The board received nearly 13,000 absentee ballots for the general election. That compares to about 8,500 absentee ballots for the 2000 general election.

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