Update: Computer Glitch puts a Hitch in Vote Counting

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Just a local Y2K glitch, added to the other millions that will come to greet us as we approach and enter the new year! Just look at how many times they say 'but this has never happened before' or 'hasn't happened in 20 years' - Well guys, it's happening now!

For research and educational purposes only


Counting ballots by hand

Vote-counting software 'just hiccuped'


Staff Writers

MOUNT VERNON -- The glitch in the software used to tabulate the Skagit County primary ballots was the first in the company's 20-year history, the company president said Wednesday.

The glitch is forcing county election workers to hand-count ballots from Tuesday's primary election. They had 888 votes counted by day's end Wednesday, and expect to have more today.

The county's vote-counting software comes from a company called Votec Corp., based in San Diego. The company provides such software to election departments in 12 states, including California, Texas, Illinois and Oregon. The software also has been used in municipal elections in Los Angeles and San Diego, said John Medcalf, Votec Corp. president.

Skagit County is the only county in Washington to use the system, Medcalf said.

He this is the first he's heard of tabulation problems.

"It appears as if the program stopped reporting correctly," Medcalf said Wednesday. "It just hiccuped."

A Votec systems analyst might be flown in to assist Skagit County election officials if the Skagit County Auditor's Office can't fix the problem, Medcalf said.

"We'll investigate," he said. "We're certainly upset. We support getting to the bottom of this."

David Cunningham, deputy auditor, said his office is more concerned with counting votes now, and will deal with the computer problem when that task is done.

"Right now we are completely focused on getting the hand count done with integrity," Cunningham said.

Citizens deputized by the elections office began counting ballots by hand Wednesday after computer problems surfaced in the tabulation of ballots.

Kathy Hill, county auditor, said this morning that the hand-counting started slowly on Wednesday, but was improving today.

"We're not very far along. We only have five races," Hill said this morning. "But the people down there have never done this before. Now they're getting the hang of it."

Hill said she expects to have "significant results" by late this afternoon.

At issue are the results of 13 municipal, school board, port and fire district races.

"During a validity check, something can go wrong in the memory," Medcalf said. "My guess is that's what happened Tuesday night. But that's never happened in 20 years."

Cunningham said that in July, the county installed a new vote-counting package, made by Votec, that upgraded its software to run on a computer using Microsoft Windows as an operating system. Cunningham said the upgrade also was to help the vote-counting system weather the switchover to the year 2000.

Medcalf said the new software also will help the county post results on the Internet. He said the upgrade was a fairly minor one, however.

"Basically the upgrade was similar to going from Windows 95 to Windows 97," Medcalf said.

Tuesday's primary was the first time Skagit County used the new vote-counting system.

On Friday, the Washington Secretary of State's Office ran a "logic and accuracy" test of Skagit County's computer system. The test takes a predetermined number of ballots run through the computer with a known outcome. The results are then counted to see if it matches, said Gary McIntosh, state election director.

"This has not happened before," McIntosh said of Skagit County's vote-counting problem.

"Something occurred between the logic and accuracy test and election night. But we don't know what it was," he said. "We discourage counties from doing any system upgrading prior to an election."

King County election officials used Votec's computer software for 10 years before switching to marked ballots using optical scanners last year. Optical scan ballots are used in King, Snohomish, Pierce, Kittitas and Chelan counties. The system is similar to standardized tests requiring voters to fill in a space next to each candidate's name.

"As far as we were concerned Votec was an excellent system," said Bob Bruce, King County superintendent of elections.

"But with an increasing number of permanent absentee voters, we decided to do away with punch-card ballots, which are not user-friendly to absentee voters."

Meanwhile, about 15 ballot inspectors huddled together Wednesday in Hearing Room B of the Skagit County Courthouse Administration Building, and again this morning, counting ballots.

Overseen by elections office supervisor Marie Nelson and staff member Mary Hemphill, the room was held to strict behavior guidelines. Reporters and political party observers sat in the back as the ballot inspectors worked.

All were sternly lectured by Hemphill that there was to be no talking, and that any questions about the procedure were to be either submitted in writing or taken upstairs to the elections office.

Lynn Black, who is running for re-election on the Burlington-Edison School Board, said she was frustrated and a little insulted by the process so far.

"I am really discouraged and disappointed in the system at this point," Black said Wednesday afternoon. She said she got only terse replies when she called the elections office to ask about returns.

"I know they're getting tired of being asked, but they are public officials and they are supposed to give us information," she said.

"I'm going to have to know pretty soon whether to gear up for a campaign or not."

A Mount Vernon School Board candidate, however, was less concerned.

Early totals showed Deanna DeVries far ahead of incumbent Dennis Edmonds in absentee ballots, but the county staff said those numbers, posted Tuesday night, were to be disregarded.

Still, it doesn't bother DeVries.

"I'm a single mother and I'm dealing with so many different situations, I just learn to take things as they come and address what's real," she said Wednesday.

For her part, Hill said there were not enough supervisory employees to enable her to arrange an evening vote-counting shift. The workers have been, and continue, to count from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., when the county's offices close.

Hill said the counting process may be slow, to ensure the numbers are absolutely correct.

Primary Results

Here are the first unofficial primary election results for Skagit County: [snip]

-- Sammie Davis (sammie0nospam@hotmail.com), September 17, 1999


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