Published on March 9, 2006, Page B1, Fort Worth Star-Telegram (TX)


Vote spike blamed on program snafu





March 9, 2006


An undetected computer glitch in Tarrant County led to inflated election returns in Tuesday's primaries but did not alter the outcome of any local race, elections and county officials said Wednesday.


The error caused Tarrant County to report as many as 100,000 votes in both primaries that never were cast, dropping the local turnout from a possible record high of about 158,103 voters to about 58,000.


Because the errors added votes equally for each candidate, the glitch did not change the outcome of Tarrant County races but narrowed the margin of victory in some statewide races. In the close Republican primary race for Texas Supreme Court, for example, incumbent Don Willett edged past former Justice Steve Smith by only about 1 percentage point with the corrected vote tallies.


Questions about possible problems were raised by election staff late Tuesday night, as it became apparent to some that the county would far exceed the 76,000 votes cast in the 2002 primary elections.


But elections officials did not look into the discrepancies that night because they were dealing with a new system, new procedures and some new equipment, said Gayle Hamilton, Tarrant County's interim elections administrator.


"We didn't think there was a problem," Hamilton said. "We should have stopped right then.


"But we didn't question it at that time."


The problem stemmed from a programming error by Hart InterCivic, which manufactured the equipment and wrote the software for the local voting system. The system is designed to combine electronic early voting results and totals from paper ballots on Election Day.


The error caused the computer to compound the previous vote totals each time the election totals were updated throughout the night, rather than keep a simple running total, officials said.


"The system did what we told it to do," said John Covell, a vice president with Hart. "We told it incorrectly."


The program was designed specifically for Tarrant County, and no other counties reported similar problems, elections officials said.


By 7 a.m. Wednesday, campaign officials for Robert Higgins, who ran against Republican state Rep. Anna Mowery in state House District 97, showed up at election headquarters wanting to know how more than 20,000 people could have voted in that race.


"We were watching the results and we knew what the universe of numbers should be," Higgins said. "We expected about 8,000 in our race and got about 21,000."


Election officials then began reviewing the results and discovered errors.  Hart officials were called in and spent much of Wednesday reviewing election results.


By late Wednesday, officials were still running reports showing precinct-by-precinct totals -- about 5,000 pages in all -- to examine and compare the data with information collected by election judges countywide.


"Then we will feel very comfortable that the information is correct," County Administrator G.K. Maenius said. "We're going to be working on this continuously."


Democratic Party Chairman Art Brender said he had been on the verge of calling elections officials to get precinct-by-precinct data when he was told that there had been a problem with totals on election night.


"I was concerned about the results when I saw them," he said. "I thought there were too many."


Republican Party Chairwoman Stephanie Klick also said she was skeptical of the results when she saw that some GOP races had 114,000 voters turning out to cast ballots.


"That would have been a record turnout," she said.


Brender said the glitch drives home the need for a paper trail for the next election. Officials hope by the May elections that a device will be added to the electronic eSlate machines used in early voting to record paper copies of ballots cast. The Texas secretary of state's office must first give its approval.


For the ongoing review of Tarrant County data, printouts kept by election judges are being matched to the recording tape in the voting machines.


"I'm not concerned about the accuracy of data when it came in and was preserved," Brender said. "I'll be comfortable with electronic voting when there's a verifiable paper trail."


County officials say they don't know how much it will cost to correct the numbers. Hamilton said the county will waive the usual charge for candidates who want a recount.


In 2002, Tarrant County election officials did not report final tallies for more than a day after polls closed because of a different programming error that caused machines to ignore votes for individual candidates when a voter cast a straight-party ballot.


Republican and Democratic party officials are responsible for canvassing the election returns, which makes them official, by March 18. The returns will then be turned over to the state, party officials said.




Voting glitch


A sample of the vote tallies illustrates the computer glitch in Tarrant County that led to overcounting of votes for Tuesday's primaries. The results listed below were taken from the Republican governor's primary in Tarrant County. The computer erred by adding previous totals to the running vote total, compounding the number of votes cast each time election officials tallied the totals throughout election night.


 Time       Vote counts Ballots cast Phantom votes

8:27 p.m.  1,352       1,352        0

9:04 p.m.  6,398       5,046        1,352

9:35 p.m.  14,129      7,731        6,398

10:15 p.m. 20,176      6,047        14,129

10:55 p.m. 27,895      7,719        20,176

12:30 p.m. 28,374      479          27,895


Source: Tarrant County Elections Center


Anna M. Tinsley, (817) 390-7610

Anthony Spangler, (817) 390-7420


Photo: Gayle Hamilton, the interim elections administrator, compares reports with John Covell of Hart InterCivic on Wednesday.



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