County to investigate latest election snafu

JOE LAMB
LOG CABIN STAFF WRITER
Published Thursday, May 29, 2008

One error in last week's election "should not have been possible," Faulkner County Election Commissioner Bruce Haggard said, if an electronic voting machine had been functioning correctly.

The error contributed to a reversal in the District 45 State Representative Democratic Primary election.

In the East Cadron B voting precinct, Haggard said, the district 45 representative ballot was entirely absent from the touch-screen voting machines. The error was caught by county clerk Melinda Reynolds before the polls opened, Haggard said, stressing that no voters were disenfranchised.

Paper ballots were prepared for the district 45 race before voters came to the polls, he said, and these ballots were accurately counted on election night.

But the error that deleted the electronic district 45 representative ballot hid another error that went unnoticed.

When voters in the East Cadron B precinct cast their electronic votes for Cadron Township Constable, it was discovered during Friday's recount, their votes were actually being recorded for the district 45 representative race.

Haggard firmly believes this erroneous recording of votes was caused by a glitch in the machine's coding and/or software. If the complex computer coding was correctly programmed, he explained, and if the software worked correctly, "it should have been impossible" for votes in one race to be counted towards another race.

As the commission worked to tally the votes on election night, he said, vote date from the electronic vote recording cartridge generated by the machine using the apparently faulty coding or software was entered into the master tally. Though those voting for district 45 representative used paper ballots, not the machine, the East Cadron B cartridge reported votes for district 45 representative candidate Terry Fiddler and opponent Linda Tyler.

They were, of course, the votes cast for the Cadron township constable race that "dropped into" the district 45 representative race. Commissioners were aware that the district 45 representative race was absent from one precinct's ballot, Haggard said, but had no reason to be on the lookout for votes that hadn't been cast.

"We assumed, erroneously, that it would not record that race since it was not on the ballot," he said, adding that the votes for the constable race were later found to have recorded accurately on the voter-verifiable paper trail and therefore would not have appeared erroneous to voters either.

As it happened, Fiddler's name had been paired with the vastly more popular constable candidate. This falsely inflated his total number of votes and, as the race was so close, indicated that he had won.

A recount requested by Tyler proved otherwise. Though the results have not been certified, the commission now believes Tyler has won the nomination.

What makes the situation all the more baffling, he added, is that the machine in question, along with its associated software and coding, were found to have worked to perfection during early voting.

An unrelated error on election night involved three electronic vote recording cartridges containing uncounted votes from the McGee Center polling site that were discovered after election night. Haggard said the cartridges were mistakenly placed in a bag intended for unused or excess voting equipment when they were returned to the courthouse.

Haggard described this misplacement of votes by a volunteer poll worker as understandable, though inexcusable. An unpaid volunteer himself, he stressed that he takes full responsibility for all election errors and again expressed his sincere apologies to the voters and candidates the errors affected.

Haggard is confident that the pending ES&S audit will find the commission's current vote tally to be correct. He and other county authorities agree that now the focus should shift to ensuring the election night errors are fully understood and corrected before the November 4 General Election, when all expect voter turnout to dwarf last week's election.

Faulkner County Quorum Court Justice of the Peace Jimmy Bryant said he plans to help organize a forum to discuss the errors immediately after the results of the ES&S audit are in.

"We definitely need to talk about what happened, how it happened and what we can do to make sure it doesn't happen again," Bryant said.

County Judge Preston Scroggin said his office has been inundated with phone calls about the election's shortcomings. Scroggin expressed confidence in Haggard and the others who organized and oversaw the election, but said he has long doubted the infallibility of the current crop of electronic voting machines.

"Let me tell you, those are very, very complex machines," he said, adding that he is puzzled as to why cheaper, more complex electronic devices such as cell phones seem more reliable and user-friendly than voting machines.

Haggard, again saying the final responsibility for voting errors falls on himself, agreed that the machines are not as user-friendly as they should be.

"These are early-generation machines," he said. "They are relatively poorly designed."

Lisa Burks of Conway, an advocate for election accuracy and long-time critic of electronic voting machines, said the error represents the second time nationwide that an electronic voting machine has recorded votes cast for one race as having been cast for another.

(Staff writer Joe Lamb can be reached by e-mail at joe.lamb@thecabin.net or by phone at 505-1238. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)