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3 machines later, votes tabulated

November 08, 2000

3 machines later, votes tabulated



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - It took nearly 12 hours and three vote-counting machines, but Berkeley County finally finished tabulating Tuesday's General Election results at about 6:50 a.m. Wednesday.

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In a series of events that officials could only attribute to bad karma or a nearly full moon, one machine broke, its backup failed, and a third machine borrowed from Jefferson County - which had worked just fine there - worked in Berkeley County only when a special button was held down as the punch cards were fed through.

"The people we got the machines from told us this was the only county they had trouble with," said County Clerk John Small.

The machine malfunctions came after months of discussion about fixing procedural problems that plagued the May primary election and sent one contested election to the door of the state Supreme Court. Four years ago, a machine failed. Tuesday's failure caused a delay in determining the outcome of a very tight race for Congress.

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"For all the things that ran like clockwork yesterday, and then for this to happen, it's like what else?," said Berkeley County Administrator Deborah Hammond. "When it comes to equipment failure, it can happen to anybody in any situation. And then for two machines to be broken down, it's like this is full moon bad luck."

"These pieces of equipment can be very temperamental," said Deputy Secretary of State Jan Casto. "As an election official in Kanawha County, this was almost my worst nightmare that one of these machines would break down. But I always had a technician there."

Commission Chairman D. Wayne Dunham and attorney Norwood Bentley, IV, hunched over the back of the malfunctioning machines Tuesday night but couldn't fix them.

County Commissioner Robert Burkhart said the company that rented the machines will be told it must provide a technician Tuesday when the canvass of votes is done. County officials may recount all ballots because of the uncertainty, he said.

"You can be sure we're all real upset with this system," Burkhart said. The county may refuse to pay the company, he said.

The first machine jammed at about 11 p.m. A backup machine shared with Jefferson County was retrieved and suffered the same fate. That left a room full of Berkeley County officials and election workers sitting around with nothing to do until Jefferson County finished its count. About 4:15 a.m., Berkeley County began counting results again.

"It's a rather old system and the machines are getting old," said John Debnigh of Casto-Harris, which provides election supplies and works with Election Systems and Software, which sent the machines. "But this is like bad karma."

A call to the company in Chicago was not returned.

The commissioners will discuss the issue today and may look into getting newer or different equipment, Burkhart said. But as long as they have punch cards, the commissioners are limited to renting from a company certified by the state. This is the only one. Twelve of West Virginia's 55 counties use punch cards.

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