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Big Presidential Vote Count Error Found and Fixed in New Mexico

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Big Presidential Vote Count Error Found and Fixed in New Mexico
By Steven Rosenfeld
Posted on October 4, 2008,

An electronic voting machine test in Santa Fe County, New Mexico, on Friday
revealed a programming error that, had it not been caught and corrected
before the start of early voting next week, would not have counted hundreds
-- or possibly thousands -- of votes for president and U.S. Senate in this
Democratic stronghold.

The software error concerned straight party voting, where voters fill in one
oval on their paper ballot that indicates they want to vote for all the
candidates from a political party. The test revealed that the precinct
optical-scanner computers, which read hand-marked paper ballots and compile
the precinct vote totals, were not counting "straight party" votes for
president and U.S. Senate.

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"It was a simple error," said Rick Padilla, a senior system supervisor for
the Santa Fe County Clerk office, which runs county elections. "When they
did the programming, they didn't link the oval to the (presidential and
senatorial votes on the) straight party ticket."

"It is one of the things that always has to be checked really carefully in a
general election," said Terry Rainey of Automated Election Services, the
company that programs the tabulator and provides other voting services in
New Mexico. "That is why we test."

Padilla and Rainey both said that the vote count programming error was not
found in any other New Mexico county. Across the state, county officials
were testing voting machines before the start of early voting on Tuesday. No
explanation was given for what caused the programming error.

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"The county was trying to get a head start," Rainey said, describing its
testing. "They saw it today in a real live test. It was fixed to the
satisfaction of the (county) Democratic and Republican party chairs."

County political leaders could not be reached for comment late Friday.

The problem occurred in the ballot definition file, a software program that
tells the tabulating device, in this case the ES&S Model 100 precinct based
optical scanner, how to interpret the voter's marks on the ballot. As Ellen
Theisen of VotersUnite.org explained in her paper "Ballot Definition Files:"

"Ballot definition data is constructed for each specific election and
contains all the details about that election. The DRE or optical scanner
uses the ballot data to determine how selections on the screen or ballot are
recorded in the vote database, which contains the results. The tally
software uses the ballot data as a 'key' when it interprets the content of
the vote database and calculates the final tallies. Without the ballot data,
the system cannot function. With incorrect ballot data, the system functions

New Mexico Election Integrity Issues

Since the 2004 election, New Mexico has shifted to voting on hand-marked
paper ballots that are scanned by optical scan computer counters. That
transition came after election integrity activists found that paperless
electronic voting machines used in the 2004 presidential election did not
record more than 21,000 votes for president -- many in historically
Democratic strongholds.

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There were many explanations offered for the so-called presidential
undervote, but the activists tend to believe that voters may have touched
the electronic voting machine's screen more than once, which, instead of
emphasizing the presidential choice, actually deselected or erased their
presidential vote.

Because George W. Bush beat John Kerry in 2004 in New Mexico by slightly
less than 6,000 votes, the high undervote rate was among the factors that
prompted the state to return to using hand-marked paper ballots. That way,
if there was another close count, county election officials could audit or
recount the paper ballots to settle disputes, advocates argued.

What is unsettling about the test in Santa Fe County on Friday was the fact
that the error affected the two most hotly contested races on the ballot --
president and U.S. senator. A more likely programming error would have have
either affected all the party's candidates globally or a single race.

Friday's test raised eyebrows because while it could have affected voters in
both parties who voted a straight party ticket, Santa Fe County is
predominantly Democratic. In February 2008, more than 20,000 people
participated in the Democratic presidential caucus. In contrast, 4,445 voted
in the county's Republican primary in June.

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Steven Rosenfeld  covers democracy issues for AlterNet. He is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and has reported for National Public Radio, Monitor Radio, Marketplace,  TomPaine.com  and many newspapers. (more...)

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