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W.Va. county scrambles to replace vote counter

May 08, 2002|BY SARAH MULLIN

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

Berkeley County Clerk John Small was on the phone with Jefferson County officials Tuesday afternoon, asking them for the back-up voting ballot tabulator the two Eastern Panhandle counties share during elections.

He learned the back-up won't arrive until election day.

Next to him was a broken tabulator.

"I feel like LuLu in 'Hee-Haw,'" he said.

It was a moment of deja vu for county officials Tuesday, bringing back memories of the 2000 November general election when both the original and back-up vote tabulators malfunctioned.

A test on the tabulator conducted at the Berkeley County Courthouse in preparation for the May 14 primary election unearthed a broken tube. The tube is used to transport air into the machine so it can push the ballots through and count them.

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"I'm sorry, it's junk. The same thing happened last year," Deputy County Clerk Max Sharff said.

Berkeley and Jefferson counties use different tabulators, but share a back-up tabulator in case one of the others breaks down, Scharff said.

Ron Pugh of Dayton Legal Blank was contracted by the Chicago company, Election Systems and Software, to test the tabulator, which can count ballots at a rate of 600 per minute.

Before the test began, Pugh said he did not anticipate any problems.

After a few minutes and no action, all those on hand, including Pugh, Small, County Commissioners Howard Strauss and John Wright, county clerk deputies and election officials, knew there was a problem.

When Pugh took the back off the machine, they found a putty-like adhesive that apparently had been used in an attempt to fix the broken connection between the tube and the air canister.

Pugh tried to tape the two together with electrical tape, but to no avail.

"It's been nothing but trouble," Small said.

Pugh called the Chicago company and was told another tabulator would be sent overnight and should arrive by 10:30 a.m. today.

The election company rents the tabulator to the county for $6,500, which includes the test, election night counting, and canvassing.

Jefferson County Clerk John Otto told Small he used a jackknife and a screwdriver to patch his up.

Pugh said there are no new machines of this type and no replacement parts are made for them because they are slowly being discontinued and replaced with more high-tech machines such as touch-screen voting machines.

Strauss said the commission has expressed an interest in the touch-screen technology, but the devices cost about $5,000 each and without federal and state funds the county can't afford them.

The machines eliminate the need for a tabulator because they tabulate votes as they are cast.

Berkeley County has 273 voting stations that require voters to push a stylus through a card to mark the candidate for whom they are voting. Sometimes the hole isn't complete and the piece that was supposed to be punched out - called a chad - is left hanging, which can prevent the tabulating machine from recording the vote.

"Punch real hard," Small recommended.

Strauss said the county may try to phase in the touch-screen machines, or something else, by using them during the absentee voting for the primary elections because only a few are needed and they remain in one location.

If the current stations are replaced, the county would need to purchase about 273 voting machines for 58 precincts throughout the county.

Strauss said the county can't afford to do that without financial help.

The polls open for the May 14 primary election at 6:30 a.m. and close at 7:30 p.m. If all goes well, the first precinct should be in by 8:15 p.m., Small said.

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