Archive for Thursday, April 3, 2003

Ballot counting snafu one in a string of mishaps

April 3, 2003


There were more questions than answers Wednesday about a vote counting error that shuffled the outcome of Tuesday's Lawrence City Commission election, overstated the turnout and left voters wondering about the veracity of results.

Election officials discovered early Wednesday they had tallied more than 7,000 votes twice. After taking out the double tallies, Lawrence City Commission candidate Lynn Goodell lost enough ground to let David Schauner climb unofficially into third place, and a two-year commission term.

"I'm sorry that it happened, but we did catch it early," said Patty Jaimes, Douglas County clerk. "We regret that it happened, but that's why we always let everybody know that they're unofficial totals."

The shake-up means that Schauner, unofficially with 6,939 votes, now leads Goodell, who received 6,790 votes. Tuesday night's unofficial totals had Goodell topping Schauner, 9,656 to 9,443.

The mistake adjusted voting totals for other races in the county but did not affect other outcomes. The Lawrence school district's bond issue still failed, and the top four vote-getters in the school board race remained unchanged.

String of snafus

The tallying mistake is the latest in a string of snafus that have marred, or at least slowed, elections and their reporting of results in Douglas County.

In the April primary, so many voters turned out at some polling places that Jaimes had to use her office photocopier to produce extra ballots, all of which later had to be counted by hand.

In 2000, election officials counted another set of ballots twice, leading to a revision of totals.

Two years earlier, Dan Neuenswander's bid for a seat on the Kansas State Board of Education fell short -- but only later would he find out how close he had come. It turned out 3,000 votes were "lost" in the reporting translation from the Clerk's Office to the Secretary of State's Office in Topeka.

Neuenswander, a former superintendent of Lawrence public schools, ended up asking for a recount and finished only about a dozen votes behind the eventual winner, John Bacon of Olathe. In all, about 27,000 ballots were cast.

But this latest case still gave the retired school official reason to wonder about the accuracy of the work being done at the clerk's office.

"Seven thousand votes? Whoa," Bacon said. "Most of the time, we don't question results. We work so hard, and when we see the results we assume that they are factual. The message here is if you're involved in something like this, you need to take some time to double check."

'Disservice to community'

Jaimes admitted that her office failed to check the unofficial totals before posting them Tuesday. Her reasoning: The Clerk's Office already had been struggling through a two-hour delay caused by a computer mix-up, in which the voting machines were said to be using software from February's primaries to count ballots from the general election. It was unclear how that would have happened, or who was responsible.

The names didn't match, and all the ballots that had been counted had to go through the machines again.

"It's very hectic down here on election night," Jaimes said. "People are wanting numbers quickly, the faster the better. ... If we didn't have that pressure to get them out quickly, we wouldn't have this problem."

Maley Wilkins, a former president of the Lawrence school board, followed Tuesday's returns and couldn't escape reaching a frustrating conclusion.

"I think it's a disservice to the community for an election to not be run better," Wilkins said. "I understand that errors occur, and there's reasonable explanations for errors, but we need to take a hard look at what happened and see it doesn't happen again. We need to take some action."

Restructuring plan

Jaimes said she and her staff would learn from the latest mistake, which came as the result of human error. Jo Dalquest, deputy county clerk, mistakenly entered computer files of previously tallied results from 23 precincts and advance voting into a category reserved only for damaged or mismarked ballots.

While the computer program asked only for results for "resolution board" ballots -- a total of 86 counted Tuesday night -- Dalquest instead entered results from 7,002 ballots cast in 17 Lawrence precincts and six in rural areas.

"It's just part of the election business, really," Jaimes said of mistakes. "I don't know that anybody's had a perfect election."

County clerk is an elected position, and Jaimes has been elected to it six times, starting in 1980.

County officials have been exploring the possibility of restructuring the government to make it more "professional," possibly by changing its fundamental setup.

Under the proposal, Douglas County offices that have been occupied by election winners since 1868 -- county treasurer, sheriff, district attorney, register of deeds and clerk -- could be turned over instead to employees who would report to the county administrator rather than voters.

Supporters say such a shift could make government more efficient, more productive and more professional.

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