Leader Blues

Friday, May 26, 2006

TOP STORY >> Lonoke County could start count today

BY JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

IN SHORT: Software failure leaves candidates and voters in suspense and in the dark.

For the fourth night, Lonoke County office seekers and voters went to bed Friday without knowing who won, lost or must compete in a runoff, the ballots locked up in the courthouse while a software company scrambled to properly program the optical-ballot scanner.

If all goes well—and it hasn’t yet—the Lonoke County Election Commission will begin counting votes at 7:30 a.m. Satur-day, according to commission chairperson Jean McCanliss, who confided it might be more like 10 a.m.

That’s more than 84 hours after the polls closed Tuesday evening.

Election watchers realized early in the count election night that the optical scanner reading the paper ballots was im-properly programmed, counting only countywide votes and some local votes.

Specifically, how could more than 120 Ward I Cabot Republicans vote for one of three sheriff candidates, but only 28 Republicans in that ward vote for a mayoral candidate?

A “repaired” program installed by Electronic Systems and Software, the vendor for both the hardware and the software, Thursday still didn’t work.

“It had a glitch,” said County Clerk Prudie Perceful.

When the company failed to make good on its promise to have a corrected program and a company technician to install and test it Friday afternoon, McCanliss sent the politicians, workers and watchers assembled at the courthouse for a hoped-for vote count home until Saturday morning.

McCanliss and fellow Democratic commissioner Al Martin held out hope until then that they could count votes Friday, but the lone Republican commissioner, Larry Clarke, expressed skepticism since early Friday that ES&S would make good on its word in time to run the ballots Friday night.

ES&S has publicly taken responsibility for this and a series of other Arkansas voting problems, saying in part, “We sincerely regret the delay and are working to get the last remaining votes counted and results reported as quickly as possible.”
County Judge Charlie Trout-man said that if the scanner didn’t work properly Saturday morning, the ballots should be hand counted over the weekend.

Arkansas counties are supposed to have early voting for primary runoff elections beginning seven days after the primary—a tight squeeze under the best of circumstances, according to Janet Harris, deputy secretary of state.

“If (Lonoke election officials) don’t start Tuesday, they won’t be the only county,” said Harris. “Some are still waiting for absentee ballots from overseas. Others won’t have their ballots back from the printer.”

“Historically, counties have had trouble with the primary runoff because of the short time,” she said. “Counties have 10 days to certify election results,” she said, but runoff voting begins in seven days.

“They just have to begin as early as practical,” said Harris.

“I feel so sorry for the candidates,” said Perceful, presiding over her last election season as county clerk before retirement. “They don’t know if they won, whether they are in runoffs. We’re all in limbo.”

Even if votes are successfully counted Saturday, either by machine or hand, that’s not much time for a printer to prepare a variety of different ballots to include local runoffs.

The state’s contract with ES&S is worth $15.9 million, but so far the company has been paid only $3.9 million, according to Harris.

“There are deliverables that they must meet, and they get paid a percentage when they meet them,” said Harris. “One of those is a successful primary election.”

She said her office had contracted for an independent review of the election with a North Carolina company. Earlier in the day, Clarke said the scanner program had been de-bugged in Omaha and that a technician was en route from Phillips County to test the scanner.

A successful test, witnessed by the commission and by local politicians, could have resulted in a Friday night count.