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Major ES&S EVoting Problems in Montana

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Message Steve Corrick
The nation held its breath as the counting in the highly contested Senate race in Montana extended on into midmorning the Wednesday after election Tuesday, with national control of the US Senate hanging in the balance. When it was finally resolved, Democrat Jon Tester beat sitting Senator Conrad Burns by 2,735 votes in the final unofficial count.

What went wrong? In the news story that follows this introduction, you'll learn that, in spite of his repeated warnings that election day registrations could be a problem, many were quick to criticize Montana Secretary of State Brad Johnson for failing to prepare the county election officials for the onslaught of election day registrants who wanted to vote. However, Johnson did far better than the election officials in many other states, and even, on October 15, had issued a great ruling which may have prevented even more election day software problems by requiring a 5% random testing of the voting machines after the election had started on November 7.

So the real story of why the vote took so long is that, once again, the electronic voting machines proved far less reliable than simple human counting: Yellowstone County (Billings, MT) had to start their count over because ES&S software installed only a month!!! before the election required the County Clerk to reset the machines after the absentee ballots were counted and he forgot to do so on two out of the three machines. Silver Bow County (Butte, MT) had serious software problems that delayed their count until the next morning--and had them reporting "final" results when there were still 4,500 uncounted votes. In Flathead County (Kalispell, MT), the machines failed so badly that county officials were forced to conduct their entire count by hand.

The result? As usual, in spite of great elections officials and a lot of preelection preparation, another American election was left hanging by poorly programmed and unstable computerized electronic vote counting machinery.

When are we going to learn that humans may fail or manipulate vote totals, but they almost never are 900 or 18,000 or 13,000,000 votes off, as the election machines frequently have been?

See the summary story that follows:

Let all our votes be counted--by hand on hand-marked paper ballots,


Steve Corrick

What went wrong?
Posted: Friday, Nov 10, 2006 - 12:23:45 am MST

Computer glitch, Election Day registration slowed Flathead vote The Daily Inter Lake

During an election night filled with voting snafus statewide, Flathead County once again struggled with glitches in the computer software designed to tabulate vote totals.

It was deja vu for election officials who had vowed to have final results tallied by 10 p.m. on Tuesday. By 10 a.m. on Wednesday, the county still had about 200 provisional ballots to process.

Officials made the same promise of early results for the June primary election, only to face computer software problems that delayed vote counting by several hours.

County Election Director Monica Eisenzimer said this time around, her department had conducted successful test runs on the software system provided by Omaha, Neb.-based Election Systems & Software.

But shortly after the polls closed Tuesday, tabulators discovered the vote information on computer memory cards for each precinct didn't coincide with the manually tabulated reports.

"All the ballots were being cast to one person" on the memory cards, Eisenzimer explained. That forced officials to manually tabulate results for each precinct, a tedious process that took until 4 a.m. Wednesday.

Eisenzimer said an Election Systems & Software representative stationed at the election department didn't know how to fix the problem. The company is the only firm certified to provide election software in Montana.

Election Systems spokesperson Amanda Brown said she was aware of the problem with the software. After the site-support representative was unable to address the problem, county officials called the company's support hot line but still couldn't resolve the glitch.

"We're definitely working with election officials" on the software issue, Brown said.

While the manual tabulating slowed the process, Eisenzimer said afterwards she preferred doing it that way.

"I know it slowed things down, but I'd rather have it right," she said. "All we want is every ballot to be counted right."

GLITCHES STATEWIDE put Montana and Flathead County in the national spotlight while the country waited for results from the pivotal Senate race between incumbent Republican Conrad Burns and Democratic challenger Jon Tester. Tester didn't emerge as the winner until midday Wednesday.

In Yellowstone County, the state's most populous county, problems emerged during the counting of absentee ballots. Using Elections Systems software that had been installed a month ago, Yellowstone officials realized absentee ballots that had been counted were not "zeroed out" before the counting of regular ballots and numbers were mistakenly added together, according to The Associated Press.

Yellowstone officials scrapped the count early Wednesday and started over, delaying results for seven hours.

Butte likewise had computer software problems that disrupted the process, and in Cascade County 1,000 absentee ballots had to be reprocessed because they were filled out with black pens instead of pencils, according to The Associated Press.

AN OVERWHELMING response to a new state law that allows voter registration on Election Day also compounded problems in Flathead County.

The Flathead County Election Department processed 353 last-minute voters on Tuesday at the courthouse, which delayed the setup for vote counting as precinct results began arriving. While the law strives to be voter-friendly, it also accommodates procrastinators, Eisenzimer said.

"We can't do our job when we're servicing 400 people in a day," she said. "We're human. We wear out after 12 hours and we can't just bring in a new crew."

Flathead County finished processing voters at about 9 p.m., then regrouped to begin vote counting. The law mandates that latecomers vote at the county courthouse where the election administrator can confirm they're not otherwise registered and have not voted elsewhere in the state.

The new voter-registration option caused long lines in several cities, including Bozeman, where press reports said it was midnight when the last ballot was cast at Gallatin County Courthouse.

Previously, residents had to register to vote at least 30 days before an election.

ABSENTEE BALLOTS also have hamstrung the process during the past couple of elections in Flathead County.

A total of 10,089 absentee ballots were cast for Tuesday's election, but counting of those votes didn't begin until a resolution board assembled at 6 p.m.

The local five-member board includes representatives from local political parties.

Eisenzimer said the county is looking for ways to speed up the process. A crew of roughly a dozen election judges, sequestered in the county Extension Service building, opened and processed the sealed ballots.

"We wanted to do the absentees at the fairgrounds, but there was no Internet connection," she said. "Space is an issue" at the courthouse.

Although Flathead County begins counting absentee ballots late on Election Day, state law allows counties to begin counting those votes as early as 7 a.m. election day, according to the Secretary of State's office.

Eisenzimer said the county may consider developing its own computer program for tabulating votes.

"We had our computer programmer working last night," she said Wednesday. "We want to see if we can code our own [results] and build our own system."

The county spent a lot of time training election judges for Tuesday's midterm election, and that training paid off with an orderly and on-time collection of precinct results, Eisenzimer said.

"Unfortunately, there's always something" that goes wrong, she said. "It's frustrating. We want to be done and out of here at 10 p.m. That's our goal."

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by e-mail at
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Steve Corrick is an environmentalist and voting activist in Montana, formerly active in Illinois.
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