E-voting Woes Force New Election in N.C. County

Touch-screen errors led to loss of 4,400 ballots

Voters in one North Carolina county can return to the polls next month to recast ballots that were lost due to a malfunctioning e-voting machine in the November election.

The state's Board of Elections voted last week to allow about 4,400 Carteret County residents whose votes were lost -- along with 19,600 who didn't go to the polls -- to cast ballots Jan. 11 for the state agriculture commissioner.

That was the only state or local race close enough for the 4,400 votes to make a difference, said Robert Cordle, one of five members of the board. In that race, challenger Steve Troxler has a 2,300-vote lead over incumbent Britt Cobb. The Jan. 11 votes will be added to the November result.

The votes were lost because the touch-screen system could store only 3,000 votes that day, far fewer than the 10,000 the machines should be able to handle, according to the manufacturer, UniLect Corp. in Dublin, Calif.

Poll workers didn't immediately see that the machine had begun displaying a notice that said it couldn't accept any more votes, Cordle said. The machines don't produce paper copies of the ballots. "As a compromise, we agreed to allow those whose vote was not counted last time to vote, [as well as] anybody who didn't vote last time," Cordle said. "It's a very unusual ruling, and each [candidate] has 10 days to appeal it in court. It may get changed if they do."

The January election will cost the county $20,000, Cordle said, adding that it will use the same machines used in November but will allow only 3,000 votes per machine.

The state has set up a legislative commission to study e-voting, and election board officials are looking into requiring the use of machines that produce a paper audit trail, Cordle added.

Will Doherty, executive director of the Verified Voting Foundation Inc. advocacy group, said the problem in Carteret County was the most serious e-voting problem nationwide because of the clear evidence of lost votes.

"At a bare minimum, you have to give people whose votes were lost a chance to vote," Doherty said. "That is the tip of the iceberg. If Carteret County is going to continue to use electronic voting machines, they should immediately provide a voter-verified paper ballot on the voting machines they use."

Doherty's organization teamed with the Electronic Frontier Foundation to send letters to election officials in eight counties nationwide where voters reported incidents problematic enough to warrant "further investigation, if not full audits, recounts or redos of the election," he said. He hasn't received responses from those counties, which include Broward and Palm Beach in Florida, Mahoning and Franklin in Ohio, Mercer and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, Harris in Texas and Bernalillo in New Mexico.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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