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Story: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dallas/politics/local/newspaper/stories/102302dnmetvotingproblems.380b6.html

County Democrats say early votes miscounted

Court hearing delayed as meeting planned on touch-screen problem; GOP criticizes filing



Dallas County Democrats asked a state district court judge to shut down early voting Tuesday because some touch-screen ballot machines hadn't accurately recorded votes.

But Democratic leaders opted later to delay a court hearing, agreeing to meet Wednesday with county elections officials and representatives of the Nebraska-based ballot machine manufacturer for an explanation.

The Democrats said they received several dozen complaints Monday and Tuesday from people who said that they selected a Democratic candidate but that their vote appeared beside the name of a Republican on the screen. They also said some votes cast for Republicans were counted for Democrats.

Problems were reported in seven or eight of the 24 early voting locations, and 18 machines were taken out of service, said Bruce Sherbet, county elections administrator. Affected races included the hotly contested U.S. Senate race between Republican John Cornyn and Democrat Ron Kirk, the former Dallas mayor.

Democratic officials said they didn't know how many votes might have been inaccurately recorded. No problems were reported in other counties.

"We don't know if we lost 10 votes, 100 votes, 1,000 or 10,000," said Susan Hays, chairwoman of the Dallas County Democratic Party.

Dallas County Republican Party Chairman Nate Crain called the Democrats' court filing "a blatant attempt to stop people from exercising their right to vote early."

Early voting began Monday, and more than 16,000 Dallas County voters had cast ballots, county officials said. Early voting ends Nov. 1, and Election Day is Nov. 5.

More than 400 electronic ballot machines – introduced to Dallas County in 1998 – are used at polling places. If a voter reported a problem on a machine, he or she was directed to another machine at the same location, and the vote was properly recorded, Mr. Sherbet said.

He said he would be surprised if any votes were lost or assigned to an unintended candidate. It should have been obvious to voters if their vote did not register by the candidate they intended, and voters could have sought assistance from a poll worker, Mr. Sherbet said.

Jostling causes problem

Similar, isolated problems have occurred in previous elections, he said. They normally occur when the machines are jostled in transport and get "misaligned," Mr. Sherbet said.

Readjusting and properly aligning the machine's mechanisms, he said, is a quick, simple process for a county elections employee who has been trained by the manufacturer.

The touch-screen machines – made by Election Systems & Software – have been used in more than 90 Dallas County elections in the past four years and have an outstanding record overall, Mr. Sherbet said.

"Any touch-screen system – from a voting machine to a Palm Pilot to an ATM – can have calibration issues," he said. "We want to address every concern."

For early voting only

The touch-screen system has been used in Dallas County only for early voting. On election days in Dallas County, voters use pens to fill in circles next to candidates' names on paper ballots. The ballots are read by scanning equipment.

County officials have said they would prefer to use touch screens on Election Day, too, but the cost of buying enough machines is prohibitive.

Ms. Hays said it appears that the problem was with the voting equipment, not county elections personnel.

"This is a vendor's problem," she said. "They need to prove to us that voters' votes are being cast as they want."

Last year, the outcomes of 18 suburban Dallas County elections remained unclear days after the election because of vote-counting problems. About 5,000 of nearly 18,000 ballots cast during the early voting period were not properly assigned to candidates.

Computer problems were caused when a candidate was added after early voting had started. The county faulted ESS officials for not recognizing that the addition could cause problems.

Mike Limas, chief operating officer of ESS, defended the voting system Tuesday.

"We're continuing to work with the county to see if we can validate what's being discussed and resolve it," Mr. Limas said. "This really doesn't happen very often, although obviously it's very serious to someone who feels that their vote is not being accurately counted."

ESS says it is the world's largest manufacturer of voting equipment. The company says it has handled more than 40,000 elections representing more than 100 million ballots. It contracts with 1,700 jurisdictions in 49 states, Canada and other countries.Some county Republican leaders said Tuesday that Democrats were exaggerating the extent of the voting problems for political gain.

Dallas County Commissioner Jim Jackson said it would be "a travesty" to shut down early voting based on the temporary restraining order request filed late Tuesday by Democratic leaders to try to halt the election.

"This is a partisan effort to disrupt the election because they are losing," said Mr. Jackson, a longtime Republican.The petition for a temporary restraining order said that "widespread" problems occurred in at least 11 early voting locations. A hearing before state District Judge Mary Murphy began Tuesday before the delay.

Some voters who wanted to vote a straight Democratic Party ticket instead had votes assigned to all Republican candidates, the court filing says.

'Gross violation'

The problem is a "gross violation of constitutional and statutory rights," it says.

Voter Kate Kettles told The Associated Press that she tried to vote for all Democratic candidates but that the computer highlighted Republicans all the way down the ballot. She said that an election official moved her to another machine but that it took several tries to get the correct candidates selected.

"It's the fact that I'm having to make a serious effort that is really disconcerting," Ms. Kettles said.

Mr. Kirk said he was concerned about the voting problems.

"The good news is that I know Bruce Sherbet," he said. "I know he's someone with integrity. We are pleading with voters to scroll through the ballot and make sure what the ballot reflects is the way you have voted."

Staff writers Gromer Jeffers Jr. and Todd J. Gillman contributed to this report.

E-mail ehousewright@dallasnews.com and vloe@dallasnews.com