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In a razor-close contest in VA, a state Court has supervised, and certified, a so-called "recount" of the race for Attorney General.

Did the voting machine in your city tally your ballot
— or did it count you out?

    Recount Starts, but Without Va. Ballots  Wash. Post
The recount in the race for Virginia attorney general began yesterday ... but because of rules set by a three-judge panel overseeing the process very few votes were actually recounted.
     It is "only a reverification and a checking of the paperwork," said Rob Moses of the Loudon county Democratic Committee.

Two court rulings kept 25% of the ballots, the optical-scan ones, from being looked at or refed through the tally machines.  The candidates were separated by less than 1/50th of a percent, or 323 votes of 2 million cast.

Many of the votes were tallied on a scanner model named the Optech III-PE. The III-PE recently lost its certification in North Carolina and created counting problems in Colorado — where a review of ballots flipped 2 races after it found bunches of marked ballots were skipped over by machines.

Though the Circuit judges were alerted to this info, they ordered a ballot count in only 10 precincts in a single county, plus 1 lone precinct in Lynchburg.

Both of the jurisdictions directed to recount by the Court happened to be ones that were carried by Republican Rob McDonnell.

Other counties, for example, Arlington – where Democrat Creigh Deeds won 73% of the 56,000 ballots cast – were bypassed by the Court's 10-precinct limited recount order.  Also bypassed was Albemarle County: Deeds 58%, McDonnell 42%.

Now get the Catch-22 – "The judges agreed to order manual recounts only in instances where voting machine malfunctions could be proved."

The CATCH, of course:  a machine that misreads ballots is often uncovered only when the ballots are reviewed.  By prohibiting the review, few  machine glitches could be found or proved.  

Statewide, the pre-"recount" split between the candidates was 49.96% vs 49.95% (and .09% for write-ins).

Here's why the paper ballots deserved a second look.

     In recent close recounts in Arizona and Colorado, election officials made a discovery:   many of the filled out mailed-in (early or absentee) ballots were missed by certain counting machines, especially the Optech III-PE and the Optech IV-C.  Picking up the missed votes reversed 2 races in Colorado and 1 in Arizona.

These older Optech tabulators are sold by both Sequoia Voting Systems and by ES&S  (allowed under a Department of Justice anti-trust decree).  We are learning the Optechs overlook the marks made by various writing instruments that voters used from home, missing the marks that don't leave enough graphite deposit on the ballot.

The (Hampton Roads, Va.) Daily Press reported on Saturday 78 no-vote ballots found from Gloucester County and 63 uncounted from Hanover County.  [Gloucester uses the Optech IIIPE to count all its ballots; Hanover uses that model to count only its absentees.]  Gloucester County, a red jurisdiction, went for McDonnell 61% to 39%; Hanover leaned to McDonnell 67% to 33%.

Ten precincts in Gloucester County and one in the city of Lynchburg (McDonnell 53% to Deeds 47%) were directed by the court to examine ballots for missed undervotes.  If a good number of the paper ballots were not read from the 9 Gloucester precincts and the single Lynchburg precinct, odds are good the ballots in those locations would similarly split in McDonnell's favor.

The recent findings in Colorado and Arizona argue for not letting any county's mail-in votes be excluded, or given "less equal" protection to be counted.   -->

        The Denver Post covered  --

           State's eye on vote scanners
           Secretary of State Gigi Dennis might seek
             new machines in 10 counties after hand recounts

           changed two results last month.

Clear Creek County [Colorado] found 97 votes that had not been included in the initial machine vote. A ballot question regarding a local school district initially won by six votes but after the hand recount lost by 18 votes.

"I have no confidence in the machines, and we're looking to have them replaced," Clear Creek County Clerk and Recorder Pam Phipps said.

In Park County, the outcomes remained the same, but "quite a few" undervotes appeared during the recount, Clerk and Recorder Debra Green said.

The 13-year-old machines, she said, are worn out.

At issue are the Optech III-P Eagle machines, sold by Election Systems & Software and Sequoia Voting Systems.

A post-election audit in November led Dennis to order a hand recount in the 10 counties that use the machine. In at least two counties - Clear Creek and Chaffee - the recount changed the outcome of races.

The AP cited a machine-vendor official who explained the problem:

Michelle Shafer, a spokeswoman for Sequoia, said problems occur when mail ballots are fed into the machines.  

"They are meant to be used in a controlled environment, like in a precinct, where people use the right pencils and pens," she said. Mailed-in ballots often have different ink colors or circled names, leaving the machine unable to read them.

It turns out that the Optech III-PE can be set to easily separate out cast or mailed-in ballots that are blank.  You can read that from the spec sheet for the III-PE found at a board of elections website. (It's a Durham Cty, No. Carolina BoE site that gives the features of the machine.)

"Programming Versatility.  The election authority may pre-select the option to outstack write-ins, overvotes, blanks or invalid ballots."

However, I spoke to the Elections Manager of Albemarle County, Va, who explained that the state Board of Elections does not require the op-scan tabulator machine set to separate out blank ballots or undervotes.  Because of the specified procedures, local election authorities set the machine on Election Day to separate out only the write-ins.

For this reason,  out of the 1400 absentee ballots she said were cast in Albemarle county, which voted 58% for Deeds and 42% for McDonnell, she can not say how many ballots were unreadable or blank --- because neither the state Board of Elections nor the Circuit court has requested it be run or done.   So it is known for Gloucester and Lynchburg, but not for the other areas.

To find which counties in Virginia use the Sequoia Voting Systems Optech III-P Eagle, check out the state list of equipment.  About 20 jurisdictions use the model at least for counting absentee votes; some of them are red, some blue.

The larger of these counties that McDonnell carried are Prince William and Hanover.  The larger ones that Deeds carried are Albenarle and Arlington.

Count on this.  Without looking at the ballots across every county, the re-examination in Gloucester and Lynchburg can not pick up all the overlooked mailed-in votes.  Looking at the 61% to 39% contest in Gloucester that leaned to McDonnell, a recount that centered in that locale will not upset the official outcome.

This is what happens when candidates or judges cherry-pick where to recount.

Originally posted to joan reports on Wed Dec 21, 2005 at 11:17 AM PST.

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