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Capital Confusion: DC Officials Reveal Computer Failure Hampered April 1 Election

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[Image courtesy of NBCWashington]

On April 1, results for the District of Columbia's citywide primary were delayed, supposedly because of workers' failure to properly close out a handful of machines at the end of the day.

Now, however, the Board of Elections is saying that something much more significant was the cause: a widespread computer failure that stymied efforts to tabulate the returns. The Washington Post has more:

D.C. elections officials offered an entirely new explanation Tuesday for the major vote-counting delays that plagued the city's April 1 Democratic primary: The issue was not five mishandled electronic voting machines, but a broad computer network failure.

The network failure was a mystery to elections officials as it unfolded, said Clifford D. Tatum, executive director of the Board of Elections. But its effect was abundantly clear to all involved on election night, when vote-counting -- including ballots the city had accumulated during weeks of early voting -- did not begin until almost 10 ...

"I know it sounds preposterous," Tatum said, explaining that on election night, polling officials never really did determine the problem. "I was standing over the machine, saying . . . 'What's taking so long with these results?' We were waiting and waiting, but it never dawned on us that we were having a major issue."

The computer problems were just one of a series of problems that emerged on Election Day:

Poll captains' calls for help went unanswered at elections headquarters because of an overburdened phone system; a coding error repeatedly published inaccurate tallies on the board's Web site; and even such simple mistakes as distributing pens -- and not pencils -- to all 143 polling precincts sent staffers scrambling the day before polls opened to keep from botching the paper ballots.

In response to the problems Deborah Nichols, chair of the Board of Elections, is seeking upwards of $2 million for computer and equipment upgrades - but scrutiny of the city's elections is ramping up after the latest problems:

Dorothy Brizill, a longtime civic activist and poll watcher, called the board's troubles this year the worst she'd seen. She also announced that she had formed a new Citizens Committee for Election Reform and asked presidential appointees to chair the effort to keep voting in the nation's capital from growing into a larger embarrassment.

Those calls won't find an eager audience at the Board:

Nichols bristled at the criticism, calling the April 1 primary a success in terms of accuracy.

"The BOE's performance during the April 1 election and early voting, although not perfect, was in my assessment successful," she said. "All the statutory requirements and obligations were met."

"Timeliness," Nichols added, "is only one factor."

This discussion is likely to get even more interesting as DC voters return to the polls this fall to choose a new mayor ... stay tuned!

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