Monday, March 13, 2006

Lessons to learn from Tarrant County, Texas

A computer glitch in Tarrant County, Texas has fouled up election results and raised doubts about the integrity of the vote, according to this article by Max Baker of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. County election officials said a computer programming error caused some votes to be counted multiple times. Now some candidates want to see a recount, but some of the ballots cast were electronic, with no voter-verified paper backup (it's not required yet it Texas), and ultimately figuring out what went wrong will depend on what the Texas-based manufacturer of the equipment, Hart Intercivic, says went wrong. Excerpts from the Star-Telegram story are featured below.


Tarrant County officials expect to decide by early next week whether to conduct a full recount of Tuesday's primary ballots because of questions about a computer glitch that not only inflated turnout numbers but may also have changed the outcome of some races.

Stephanie Klick, the Tarrant County Republican Party chairwoman, said party officials are reviewing the state election code while considering whether to ask for a recount or challenge the final tabulations in court.


Gayle Hamilton, the county's interim elections administrator, said she has been talking to the district attorney's office and the secretary of state's office about the best way to verify the election results.

"I'm not in a position to say how it's going to be handled yet," Hamilton said. "We want voters and the candidates to feel confident that all of the ballots were cast properly and counted."


County election officials said that because of a computer programming error, some votes were counted multiple times. That boosted the final tally in both primaries by as much as 100,000.

On Wednesday, officials said the error shouldn't alter the outcome of any race. But Klick said the two top vote-getters in the race for the 324th District Court traded places when the last count was released.

Late Tuesday, former state District Judge Paul Enlow was in the lead in the three-way race. By Wednesday, Associate Judge Jerry Hennigan was the leader. Enlow and Hennigan both got about 36 percent of the vote and will compete in a runoff April 11.

"If the numbers were supposed to be consistent throughout, they should not have changed, and they did," Klick said. "So something is wrong."

Hamilton said she was unaware of the change.

Although Tarrant is the only county to report this type of tabulation problem so far, statewide candidates are watching the outcome of the disputed returns closely.

David Rogers, campaign manager for former Texas Supreme Court Justice Steve Smith, said Smith may ask for a recount in his race against Justice Don Willett. The campaign is also considering filing a suit challenging the results, he said.

Willett won by 5,000 votes -- or less than a percentage point statewide -- after Tarrant County's retabulation slashed Willett's local lead by about 13,000 votes. Without the Tarrant County numbers, the Smith campaign said, they would have won the race by about 3,000 votes.

"I sure would like some kind of explanation of what is going on," Rogers said.

State District Judge Frank Sullivan said he has already asked for a recount in his Republican primary race against challenger Nancy Berger.

Sullivan, a judge for 23 years, lost by 569 votes, according to the last cumulative report issued by the county. But the vote count went back and forth to the last minute.

"With a 23-year career going down the toilet, somebody ought to be able to say how many votes I got and how many the other side got," Sullivan said. "I'm not sure it will change anything, but I'd like to know what it is."

The elections computer programming was carried out by county election officials under the direction of Hart InterCivic, the company that manufactured the equipment and wrote the software for the local voting system. The system is designed to combine electronic early voting results with totals from paper ballots on election day.

It was a new system with new procedures, and because of a human programming error, the computer compounded previous vote totals each time the numbers were updated rather than keeping a simple running total, officials said.

"It is very unfortunate that the candidates and the parties are having to go through this," Hamilton said. "We take as much responsibility as Hart InterCivic."

Mike Kennedy, a Republican election judge, said he would like to see an independent inquiry conducted to determine exactly what went wrong Tuesday night. Saying he didn't want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, Kennedy said a forensic review of the election results after a recount would possibly erase any doubts that someone tampered with the process.

"All levels of our government should have a transparency to them," he said.

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