Archive for Thursday, August 5, 2004

County’s tallies slow election results

Reporting delays risk hampering timing of Nov. 2 voting outcomes

August 5, 2004


With a pivotal congressional campaign hanging in the balance, supporters of Kris Kobach and Adam Taff burned up the phone lines into the Douglas County Courthouse late Tuesday night.

They were looking for something -- anything -- to give them a glimpse at the unofficial results that could settle the dead-heat race for the Republican nomination in the 3rd District.

Kobach ended the night up by 87 votes, ultimately lifted by a 145-vote advantage in Douglas County.

"Everybody wants to know the answer as soon as they can, but ... we can't do it any faster than we can do it," said Marni Penrod, deputy county clerk for elections.

But with other counties counting and disseminating results more quickly, Douglas County's results-reporting performance is certain to become a campaign issue as the Nov. 2 general election approaches.

Jamie Shew already is seeing to that.

"That's one of the main reasons I'm running," said Shew, the Democratic nominee for county clerk. "There are a lot of business processes and strategic planning that can be put in place to make things run a little smoother."

Shew and Penrod, the Republican nominee, are vying for the chance to take over for Patty Jaimes as the county's top elections officer. Jaimes, who has been county clerk since 1981, is not seeking re-election.

Other than reports of a mix-up at one polling place -- three Democratic voters were given the wrong ballots, potentially costing state Rep. Paul Davis a handful of votes in a one-person race -- there wasn't much cause for alarm, Shew said.

"Things have gone better than some previous elections," he said, "but I'm hearing from people who just don't understand why Douglas County is so slow in getting its results in."

The Taff-Kobach race only magnified the significance of the county's returns.

While Johnson and Wyandotte counties certified partial returns to the Kansas secretary of state -- allowing early returns to be posted online -- Douglas County did not certify its results until all counting was complete, just before 10 p.m. Johnson County also posts its results on its Web site,

Douglas County's final unofficial results also were the last to be released. Johnson County posted its final numbers at 9:54 p.m., while Wyandotte County was done by 9 p.m.

Another difference: While many counties release results from advance voting soon after the polls close, Douglas County holds those results until the end. Officials say that's because the county's computer software does not permit advance ballots to be tallied in a separate category; if results from advance voting were released first, they said, the county's tally sheet would show "67 of 67 precincts reporting," even before any ballots cast Tuesday had been counted.

Past problems

Tuesday's slow count continued a string of problems with Douglas County elections.

In the April 2003 Lawrence City Commission election, more than 7,000 votes were double counted, leading to a shake-up in the outcome when corrected.

Earlier, the counting had been delayed by two hours when the wrong software was found to be in use. Douglas County Commissioners ultimately asked for a recount of all ballots.

In that year's primary, enough voters turned out at some polling places that ballots had to be produced on photocopiers, 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, 3,000 votes were "lost" in the reporting translation from the County Clerk's Office to the Secretary of State's Office in Topeka.

Sticky glitch

For her part, Penrod said she was pleased with Tuesday's process in Douglas County and wouldn't mind seeing a repeat of the performance Nov. 2.

One glitch Tuesday night, Penrod said, was with one of the county's two ballot-counting machines. The day's stifling humidity had moistened ballots, especially those cast in precincts without air conditioning; such ballots ended up jamming the counting machine, delaying results by about 30 minutes.

Debbie Hahner, who works in the Franklin County Clerk's Office, offered a low-cost solution to the sticky situation caused by humidity: Set the air conditioner at 61 degrees, and buy a can of compressed air -- "maybe a couple bucks at Wal-Mart," she said -- to spray on the ballots as they get shaken in the "jogger" machine before counting.

That's what Franklin County workers did.

"It was real cold in here, but they ran through real well," Hahner said Wednesday.

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