Computer problems lead to vote discrepancy

4/4/2013

Unofficial winners unchanged, but vote totals rise.

Unofficial winners unchanged, but vote totals rise.

By SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

The Finney County Clerk's office is reporting that a computer system malfunction Tuesday night led to an error in the precinct ballot numbers reported by various media outlets covering the local elections.

It also led to confusion for people waiting for results to be posted at the clerk's office Tuesday night. Election workers who posted the results said they were unofficial, but many observers left with the impression that, other than the normal provisional ballots that are counted when all results are canvassed, there weren't additional regular ballots to be counted.

None of the unofficial winners changed as a result of the error. Election results will be canvassed at 9 a.m. Monday in the Finney County Commission chambers at the County administrative Center, 311 N. Ninth St.

County Clerk Elsa Ulrich said the computer problem was discovered Tuesday night after polls closed and the results began to be tallied. Ulrich said a card that contains a program reads ballots as they go through the counting machine. The results are saved to a disk. But for an unknown reason, the card would not read in Ulrich's card reader.

"Until the card was read, I didn't know how many ballots were counted at each precinct," she said. "I insert it into one of my card readers and it drops into a software program. The problem was it wouldn't go into the software program."

Ulrich said a programmer with ES&S of Omaha, Neb., was trying to get the reader to work, but the problem wasn't fixed until Wednesday morning, which allowed the card to be read and additional vote totals to be posted.

"The card wasn't read last night. We got it to read this morning," she said.

The clerk's office issued a couple of updates on Wednesday, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

The city sales tax question still appears to have passed, though the margin fluctuated from 1,327-252 initially, to 1,277-248 Wednesday morning, to 1,685-359 Wednesday afternoon.

Wednesday afternoon's Garden City Commission totals indicated Janet Doll finished with 1,281 votes, Chris Law 1,251 and Troy Unruh 1,161. The top three vote-getters earn seats on the commission, with the top two earning four-year terms and the third-place vote-getter a two-year term. Melvin Dale had 1,153 votes and was in fourth, and Harold Starr finished with 256 votes.

It was a whirlwind morning Wednesday for Dale and Unruh. Unruh had a three-vote lead over Dale, according to Tuesday night's numbers, then trailed by 16 votes when new numbers came out Wednesday morning, and ended ahead by eight votes in the afternoon.

Dale said he left the clerk's office Tuesday night assuming he had lost by three votes to Unruh for the third spot on the commission.

"I thought that was it. That's why I lost sleep all night," Dale said Wednesday.

Dale certainly did not think there were hundreds of additional votes left.

"I thought those were the results, and they'd be finalized later," he said. "I don't know what the problem is over there. I don't have any power over there. I just have to rely on those people that whatever happened was an honest mistake, and it was corrected and corrected properly."

Others waiting for results Tuesday night were also left with the impression that the early results were the final unofficial results, with the exception of provisional ballots that are normally counted during the vote canvass.

City Manager Matt Allen left county offices Tuesday night believing the results posted on the board were it, especially after hearing poll workers asked more than once if results were final.

"I understood they were unofficial, but all the precincts were in, and understood there weren't any more outstanding votes left to come in, that all the sites had brought in and recorded their votes," he said. "Things may move based on clearing up discrepancies, but I certainly didn't expect there to be twice as many votes left to report."

And based on everyone leaving, Allen suspects others were left with the same impression.

County Commissioner Dave Jones said he, too, went home Tuesday night realizing the votes posted wouldn't include provisional ballots, but thought the numbers were close to all of them.

Jones said he was surprised to learn Wednesday morning that the results weren't final.

"I feel bad for the misunderstanding it has created," Jones said. "It's sort of a tough situation. There's a lot of pressure placed on those election people for results, a lot of pressure from the standpoint of trying to get things accurate that it makes it tough to produce quick results and get everything accounted for."

Despite the misperception of many, Ulrich said she stepped out of the office at some point on Tuesday and told a couple of people standing there about the computer problem and that vote totals were unofficial.

"I don't know who all was standing out there," she said.

When asked why the media wasn't alerted about the computer problem or that there were more votes to count, Ulrich said she believed it was understood that the results were unofficial and wouldn't be final until Monday's canvassing.

"We got it to read this morning, and then we updated the totals we ended up with," she said. "It was stated early on they were unofficial. I don't understand why that part of it isn't coming through. Regardless of whether it was five votes or 500 votes, they were still unofficial."

Updates were provided as soon as possible, which was Wednesday morning, Ulrich said.

"I don't know what else to tell you. It's the same problem we had last time (last November). Nobody said anything then. I don't know how much the numbers changed or if they changed," Ulrich said.

Election results will be canvassed at 9 a.m. Monday in the Finney County Commission chambers at the county administrative center, 311 N. Ninth St.

Ulrich said all the regular ballots have been counted. All that's left to resolve is the provisional ballots.

"We're trying to determine how many provisional ballots we have. I don't know how many. It could change. It may not change any at all," she said.

In a press release issued late Wednesday afternoon, Ulrich said:

"As Finney County Clerk, I feel it is essential that I provide the public with timely, accurate updates regarding the status of the elections process, as it comes into my offices, to the best of my ability with the tools I have available to me.

"Unfortunately, the election results provided by various media outlets to the public were not as accurate as we would hope they would have been, particularly given the fact that our office made it clear to those outlets that the election data was unofficial. We understand that the results of these tightly contested elections are important to those citizens who have taken the time to participate in the democratic process."

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