Touch-screen voting machines in at least two Buncombe County precincts failed to display one of the races on the ballot in the Nov. 2 election. And because the county's Sequoia electronic machines don't provide a paper record, it's impossible to determine how many votes -- and which ones -- were lost.
At the time, Lucy Hunter -- the precinct captain for the 8th Precinct, in Asheville's Shiloh community -- told Xpress she believed about 300 votes had been annulled.
Asked to confirm that number on election night, Assistant Director of Elections Marvin Hollifield said, "We don't know how many voted before the problem was reported. The precinct workers weren't setting the machines right. That's all we can figure."
The same glitch cropped up in the 23rd Precinct (Haw Creek). In that case, the Board of Elections wasn't aware of the problem until 11:30 a.m. -- an hour-and-a-half after the Shiloh snafu was reported.
Two days later, Director of Elections Trena Parker told Xpress: "The chief judges are supposed to send us a statement of exactly what happened -- what time they figured out their mistake and how many voters they think it affected. From what we can tell, tops, it probably affected 500 to 600 voters."
The election in question was for the Roberson District seat on the Buncombe County Board of Education. Incumbent Dianne Shepherd defeated David Arpin by more than 16,000 of the 45,000 votes cast in the race, so the missing votes would not have affected the outcome. But the failure seems to contradict past assurances by county officials that the machines are fail-safe.
Last May, Parker told Xpress, "We have never had a problem with these machines." However, she also admitted that it isn't possible to absolutely verify election results with the Sequoia machines (see "Rolling the Dice," May 19 Xpress).
Asked if the Nov. 2 problem had changed her view, Parker said: "Unfortunately, this was operator error; it wasn't the machine that was messing up. The machine was doing exactly what they were telling it to."
But if it had been a close race, said Parker, "Then it definitely would have been a problem. ... In that situation, the candidates would come in here and file an election protest. We would seek guidance from the State Board of Elections, and if it was that tight, it would be possible that you would conduct a new election in those two precincts. That can only be ordered by the State Board of Elections."
Asked about the same scenario, Commissioner David Young replied: "There are races where they are having that problem in North Carolina. In Carteret County, with early voting, they didn't count 4,000 votes. That's a big deal."
According to an Associated Press wire report, the touch-screen system in Carteret County lost more than 4,500 votes, and there's no way to recover those ballots. In some races, that number is higher than the margin between the candidates.
"I think we need more training; I can't see us making a capital purchase to go out and buy more machines," said Young.
Asked about the option of installing printers on the machines, however, Young replied: "I think that is something we ought to look at. We're going to do that; we need some backup."
The other notable glitch in the Buncombe balloting occurred in early October, when misprinted absentee ballots were mailed to as many as 1,359 voters who were then issued replacements (see "Absentee Ballots Recalled," Oct. 13 Xpress). That snafu came back to haunt the Board of Elections on Nov. 2, as each submission had to be examined front and back by two or three officials to determine whether the ballot was flawed. Some voters had mailed in both ballots; in those cases, the second was checked for validity and readability, with the original held as the default document.
And although roughly the same number of absentee ballots (4,000-plus) were received as in the 2000 election, this time the absentee count stretched from 2 p.m. till midnight -- compared to just a few hours four years ago. The absentee votes were added to the totals at 3 a.m. on Nov. 3; there was no race in which those votes could have determined the outcome.