Testing might have caused problems with Durham's election equipment; hand tallies needed--again

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News & Observer, Saturday, November 6, 1999

Testing might have caused problems with elections equipment

Call-in number on modems somehow erased, county manager says


DURHAM -- County officials think they have figured out why new elections equipment failed to perform Tuesday night and forced workers to count votes precinct by precinct. County Manager David Thompson outlined his hypothesis Thursday in a memo to county commissioners, some of whom have called for a review of procedures. New Y2K-compliant equipment didn't work Tuesday, slowing returns for the second election night in a row because workers had to resort to tallying results by hand. After similar problems in the October primary, elections director Carol Booth re-tested the equipment's hardware, its modems and the phone lines. This time around, she suspects the software. Ironically, Thompson said in his memo, Booth's testing might have unexpectedly triggered the problems. She tested all 51 modems in the office and then six modems after they had been installed at polling places. State law requires that 10 percent of the machines be tested from the field in each election, Booth said. Booth said she did not test all modems from precincts because technical advisers from the county's Information Services Department told her that wasn't necessary. Perry Dixon, director of information services, said, "I guess I can take part credit for not having a test plan." But, he added, vendor Elections Systems and Software of Omaha, Neb., also has responsibility for its software. Each modem dials into the elections office using a phone number. That number was to have been burned into a computer chip, but workers -- or the software -- inadvertently erased it when employees took the modems out to the precincts and reinitialized them, Thompson said in his memo. Booth has asked that Election Systems and Software send a technician to Durham next week to look at the software. The county has not paid its $24,900 bill for the equipment, and if the company cannot help solve the problem, officials will send the equipment back, Booth said. "We either will have these machines pulled together so we'll have a real high comfort level, or we'll have machines from somewhere else," Booth said. Only two of the modems worked Tuesday night, and Thompson suspects that's because they did not have to be re-initialized after being moved to the precincts. Twenty minutes after polls closed Tuesday, Booth realized the modems weren't working and switched to the old-fashioned method of counting ballots, having each precinct call in their numbers by phone. As a result, final totals didn't come in until nearly 10 p.m. -- almost 90 minutes later than expected.

-- Old Git (anon@spamproblems.com), November 08, 1999


More detail from N&O:

Thursday, November 4, 1999

Unhappy returns: Durham results slow


DURHAM -- Some Durham County commissioners have called for a review of the Board of Elections' struggle to get results to the public in a timely manner.

For the second election in a row, officials scrambled to distribute returns as candidates and their supporters sweated a back-and-forth race lasting well into the night. New software technology and modems had been expected to whisk returns to the elections office quickly, with candidates and the news media getting the final results by 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. But the last precinct results didn't come in until nearly 10 p.m. -- a nail-biter for candidates in close races.

Elections Director Carol Booth said the office has had trouble pinpointing its technical problems. When similar problems occurred in October, county technical workers suspected the hardware: computer modems and phone lines. Now, Booth thinks the software might be the culprit. But some commissioners wondered whether the department had done enough to prepare itself, especially after similar problems in the Oct. 5 primary. "I definitely have concerns, and I'd expect [elections officials] would have concerns," Commissioner Bill Bell said. After learning of the board's problems in October, he was surprised to hear that officials weren't doing a full-scale test of the phone lines and modems. Instead, Booth tested about 10 machines and relied on those successful tests as a representative sample. "It was suggested to us to test the hardware, so we tested the phone lines," she said. "It's going to require someone from the company to give us help."

Becky Heron was the only commissioner to join the crowd watching elections returns Tuesday. "I was thoroughly disappointed," she said. "We have put a lot of money -- a lot of taxpayers' money -- into the Board of Elections."

On Wednesday, Commissioner Ellen Reckhow asked County Manager David Thompson to convene a group of elections workers, information services employees and representatives from Election Software and Solutions of Omaha, Neb., the software vendor, to figure out the problem. "We don't need another test run during an election," Reckhow said. "I think they need to take this very seriously." Thompson said he won't know how to fix the problem until he understands fully what went wrong. "The Board of Elections is charged with organizing elections, and I don't want to interfere," Thompson said. "If they're not getting the [technical] support they need, that's a county problem. If it's a software problem, that's a vendor situation." The elections department is run by an independent Board of Elections, but commissioners have direct responsibility for supporting the department financially.

Booth said election officials realized their technology had failed Tuesday just 20 minutes after the polls closed, when only two of 53 precincts had sent results to the elections office by modem. Officials switched computer programs and began taking results by phone, precinct by precinct. The numbers added up slowly in the commissioners' chambers, where candidates and their supporters waited nervously.

One City Council candidate, Patrick Byker, stood alone in the aisle as he teetered on the brink of election to an at-large seat. As each precinct trickled in, he traded spots with candidate Tamra Edwards. Byker was in, then out of the race. In, then out. It was nearly 2 1/2 hours after the polls closed before Byker learned the news: He was out by 161 votes. He will wait until provisional votes are counted and the results become official Friday before deciding whether to seek a recount. Provisional votes are cast by people who have moved since the last election.

Booth, the elections director, said she has worked since October to understand the department's computer problems. She asked the vendor, ES&S, to provide technical support on Election Day. The company at first asked Booth to pay, and she refused since the problem appeared to be in ES&S' software. A salesman asked her to split the cost, and she refused again. The salesman finally agreed to send someone to provide technical support, but later said he couldn't find anyone to fly into Durham, Booth said. ES&S officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Booth said she wants to have the problems identified and repairs started by Thanksgiving, and she pointed out that the county has yet to pay for ES&S' equipment. The new technology was bought this year to bring Durham County into Y2K compliance.

The county's next true test will come in May, when school board members are elected and primaries are held for county and state offices. But Bell remains worried. "What I would do is have the complete system set up, run through it and see if it works, and find out why if it doesn't work," he said. "I would have been testing up until a couple of days before the election."

-- Old Git (anon@spamproblems.com), November 08, 1999.

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