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Vote-machine glitches cause headaches

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Voting machine technician Ann Sanders helps Ione Andrus use the voting machine at Bryant Intermediate Tuesday.

Voting machine technician Ann Sanders helps Ione Andrus use the voting machine at Bryant Intermediate Tuesday.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

Early problems with the new electronic voting machines caused headaches for poll workers and long delays for some voters, especially in Utah County.

Long lines frustrated voters in some Salt Lake County precincts, such as at Highland High School, where the machines were not set up as quickly as expected. For early morning arrivals, that meant waiting for one machine with as many as 75 other voters.

For the most part, however, the problems were fixed within a couple hours, and reports of problems at other counties were minimal, Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert said.

Voters in other states also had Election Day headaches. In Indiana, Illinois, Georgia and Ohio, the new voting machines had faulty software.

In precincts in Indiana, Ohio and Florida, machine and poll worker problems led election officials to resort to paper ballots.

Lawyers went to court to extend voting hours in precincts in several states, including Colorado, Indiana and Ohio. The Utah machines were purchased from Diebold Elections Systems in 2004 at a cost of $25 million, most of which came from federal funding.

Considering this was the first general election test of the machines — they were used during this year's primary and last year in two cities during their municipal elections — they performed admirably, Herbert said.

"I view this as a very successful day," Herbert said just as the polls were closing. "There were a few hitches in the get along, but around the state it went very smoothly."

The biggest hitches were in Utah County, where handheld encoders that are used to program the voting cards malfunctioned, forcing voters to either vote by paper provisional ballots or return later. The county resorted to a backup plan, which allowed one of the machines to be used as an encoder in most of the precincts, with only six locations able to use the encoder.

Herbert said that the problem was most likely caused by human error, although it was not possible to tell who exactly would be at fault. Because the machines cannot be checked until after the results are certified in the next couple of weeks, it may be several weeks before the problem is determined.

Compounding the problems was a failure by workers to inform voters about the option to vote by paper ballot. The loss of one machine in each precinct also slowed down voting, although the county was trying to get extra machines to the locations reporting long lines.

People who arrived at 7 a.m. waited in line for an hour or more at dozens of polling locations in the county because of the malfunctioning encoders. Many would-be voters left before a backup system allowed voting to begin.

Utah County Clerk Kim Jackson said that while it was disappointing that everything did not work out perfectly, the good news was that the integrity of the election never seemed to be in question.

"It's positive in the sense we know we have a good backup if this happens," Jackson said. "The positive is that when voters tried to use the cards that weren't encoded, the voting machines gave us an error message rather than allowing people to vote and not counting the votes."

For Salt Lake County, the early morning problems were corrected by 9 a.m., and many polling places in the evening did not experience the lengthy waits that had concerned election officials. One precinct did report initial problems with their encoder, but that was also fixed within a couple of hours.

Difficulties experienced by voters were closer to the glitches for David Fidler, a Salt Lake resident, who could not get one of his votes to register. Eventually, a poll worker had to press the button for the opposite vote, clear that vote, and then cast the vote he wanted.

When the election judge told him he probably didn't press it hard enough, he said, "I'm a man. Believe me, I pressed it."

The new machines were required for every state by this year's election by the Help America Vote Act, which was passed in 2002 following the 2000 election problems. All punch card ballots, which Utah had been using, are no longer permitted.

The new machines allowed many blind voters to cast ballots without assistance for the first time because of audio ballot options, and the HAVA law also imposed tighter restrictions on accessibility for the disabled.

Alison Draper, an advocate at the Disability Law Center, said volunteers had checked the state's polling places in the past two weeks to ensure the disabled would have access, and a number of problems were discovered.

"A lot of counties have made significant effort," Draper said. Two years ago, the center checked more than 300 polling locations throughout Utah "and not one was (disability) accessible."

The machines received favorable review from Chris Partridge of Clinton, both of whom were using them for the first time.

"It was very clear as to how I voted," he said.

Not everyone trusted the machines, though. U.S. Senate candidate Pete Ashdown, a Democrat challenging Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chose to vote with a paper provisional ballot because of mistrust of the machines.

"Throughout this campaign, I've been telling people we need to return to paper and pencils" for voting, he said. "It would have been disingenuous to vote on a machine."

Contributing: Joe Bauman, Joe Dougherty and New York Times News Service

E-mail: jloftin@desnews.com; twalch@desnews.com