Early Morning Voting Snafus Fixed

Jeremy Aldrich -- June 15th, 2010

Human error caused this morning’s problems with voting in all five Harrisonburg precincts, according to city election officials. Precinct officers were unable to use city-issued laptops to check the status of incoming voters for more than an hour, but things are now back to normal.

According to members of the city’s electoral board (Penny Paul Imeson, Sandra Price-Stroble, and Suzanne Obenshain), the software used to check voter registration status had not been properly set up by Assistant Registrar Jenny Brown. When precinct officers tried to check the status of the first voter at each precinct, the software froze. The office quickly became aware of the problem and Brown set to work setting up the software correctly and then manually going to each precinct to install it on each of the laptops being used. Brown says she takes full responsibility for the problem and the electoral board says it is taking steps to make sure this problem never happens again.

All precincts had at least one laptop able to check voter registration by 7:15, more than an hour after polls opened.  In the meantime, voters were offered three options: they could wait while precinct officials called to verify their registration status with the registrar’s office in Harrisonburg, they could vote using a provisional ballot, or they could return at a later time to vote. Many voters chose the first option, but with five precincts and only three phone lines at the registrar’s office, that solution created additional problems of its own. 46 people chose to use provisional ballots. Election workers at the Keister precinct quickly ran through their seven official provisional ballots and improvised a solution for a further 29 ballots that involved hand-written or photocopied forms with the same information as normal provisional ballot envelopes, which were then placed in sealed letter envelopes and stored in a bag until the end of the day. The number of people who took the third option, to return later (or not to vote at all) is unknown.

Suzanne Obenshain says that during training last week, election officers were instructed to use provisional ballots if the machines were not working. However, many of them may have forgotten those instructions in the excitement surrounding this morning’s unusual circumstances. Obenshain added that the Wilt and Degner campaigns have been kept up-to-date throughout the morning, but that they don’t have contact information for Carolyn Frank (who has no campaign staff or office).

The provisional ballots will not be included in tonight’s unofficial election results, but will be included in tomorrow’s official total.

Some have questioned whether partisan politics might be at play in this situation, in light of recent scandals at the registrar’s office and the fact that county voters (who typically vote for Republicans in high percentages) did not face similar hurdles in voting this morning. Electoral board member Sandra Price-Stroble, a Democrat, responded: “I can honestly say this was a human error, technical error, whatever you want to call it. We’ve done everything we can to have a fair election.”

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44 Responses to “Early Morning Voting Snafus Fixed”

  1. Renee says:

    “Election workers at the Keister precinct quickly ran through their seven official provisional ballots”

    Seven?? Who planned this local election day?!?

  2. Renee says:

    So how many mistakes are we up to so far?

    1) Voter registration software not installed properly

    2) Laptops not tested before election day

    3) Almost no provisional ballots provided


  3. Brooke says:

    I second Renee’s post. Definitely a well-earned “FAIL.” Even if you can look past the first two, the fact that one precinct only had 7 provisional ballots is really inexcusable.

    • Third.

      IMO, a track record of “errors” like this is unacceptable.

      • Brooke says:

        I would have to agree. Honestly, I’m not sure why there hasn’t been more of a public outcry. This should go beyond party lines/loyalties, as the right to vote should be sacrosanct, and they’ve messed with it more than once. Even if one believes it’s merely incompetence and not malicious, that doesn’t change the fact that they’re screwing with the electroal process.

        Where are Myron and Dave and their petitions?

        • republitarian says:

          Where’s all the liberal doo-gooders to fix the problem. Why do the conservatives have to do everything? I’m just a dumb farmhand and Dave’s just a stay at home dad. Why hasn’t Kai done anything….maybe he could bring in Jesse Jackson…..or something.

          Here’s your chance to just do more than just type….

          • Brooke says:

            The conservatives don’t have to do everything, or even anything. Again, this isn’t a liberal or conservative issue. It’s a voter issue which transcends party loyalties, or should.

            I was just noting that you and Dave were all on fire to make sure that Becky Neal was removed post haste, so I guess I was curious why you two didn’t have the same zeal for this gross incompetence on the part of a different government office.

          • Rockingham Joe says:

            We put an Obenshain in charge of the electoral board and her neighbor Imeson for back-up. We dont do ourselves any favors in the long run by being arrogant and makin up our own rules as we go along. This just stinks. I’m used to the smell in my fields but I dont want to get used to it in my party.

          • Brooke, Debbie Logan is not a Constitutional Officer…I believe she was appointed by the Court-Appointed Electoral Board, or she’s an employee of the State Government…either way, she can’t be removed like we took out Becky Neal.

          • BANDIT says:

            You can still protest…Someone has to be held accountable.

          • Perhaps I can go speak with Logan on Friday and research how to get her out before then…anyone know who the Dem is on the Electoral Board?

  4. seth says:

    i’d say she’s doing better than she did in 08 (which isn’t saying much).

  5. So the City Voter Registrar’s office isn’t ready to conduct an election on election day, and when the voters show up they are forced to vote provisionally? That is totally unacceptable. The electoral board needs to have those votes counted today.

  6. BANDIT says:

    I find it hard to believe that they would not have done a through test of all equipment before the election … what happened to the walk through with a representative from each candidate? And why didn’t they have a paper back-up list for registration? That method was used until recently … you checked in with a human, showed ID and voted. That could have easily been in place in case of a situation like this one.

    Good grief, this is totally unacceptable. That office has a heavy republican presence – this is something that should not happen. Shouldn’t the Registrar’s office be equally represented with one from each party?

  7. BANDIT says:

    ** OOPS! Should be thorough…

  8. Jamie Smith says:

    Let’s just blame it on George Bush and be done with it!

  9. Deb SF says:

    Just got back from Keister, I was the Dem chief judge there.

    On a normal day, with the turnout expected, a handful of provisional ballots would have been plenty.

    The problem is not the volunteers at the polls. We all police the process, Dems and Pubs together, keep each other honest and it works really well. Good people, all.

    The problem is the equipment. I have 5 pieces of electronic/computational equipment in the poll on election day. 3 poll books on laptops, 1 touch-screen voting machine and 1 optical scanning machine to read paper ballots. I got to the polls just before 5AM and by 5:15, I knew the optical scanner memory card had failed. I put in a repair call (it got up and running by 7:15 with two 2 trips by the technicians). But 6:01, we knew that each of the laptops had frozen in our precinct. By 6:05, we knew they had frozen city-wide. This meant that 4 of the 5 pieces of equipment had malfunctioned, and I couldn’t use the 5th because I needed the 3 poll books to work in order to clear voters to vote.

    We voted 36 people with regulation and makeshift provisional ballot between 6 and 7:10, at which time we got one out of 3 poll books to work. It’s my understanding that each of these people have been validated in the system and their vote will be counted tomorrow morning.

    Added note: I also understand that the memory card failed in the machine that is supposed to read the absentee precinct, and those votes will need to be counted by HAND sometime before tomorrow morning.

    But, see, I KNOW that some people just left between 6 and 7:15AM. And some people said they would come back and did not – some are folks I know.

    Would it have made a difference in the outcome today? Probably not. But, as someone who has been up since 3:45 this morning and gives a damn about the process, I am deeply disappointed today, and sorry about the voters that were frustrated, the people that didn’t come back, the people who lost just a little more faith in the competence of the city, in our ability to even run a clean, fair, straightforward election.

    • Thanks for your work, Deb.

      • PAR says:

        Did I miss the mention that at Keister the doors were locked until 6:15? When I arrived a few minutes after 6:00 there were approximately 10-12 people waiting outside the door, knocking on it, trying to get inside (one person actually kicked the door several times). The door was finally unlocked at around 6:15 (I believe someone arrived who had a key). When we got inside, we were told that we would need to come back; that the computers were down city-wide and they could not check to see who was actually a registered voter (apparently, they do not keep a hard copy of the voter list at each precinct). As I turned to leave, and an election official came over to our group and said that if we had to vote immediately and could not return later, we could vote provisionally. One person asked why the doors had been locked until 6:15 and no one came out to inform voters of the problems. The election official said she had no knowledge of the doors being locked. In my opinion, this situation was a FAIL on many levels.

        • PAR says:

          I just read the previous post in which DebSF addressed my comment. As Emily Litella would say, “Never Mind!”

          • Deb SF says:

            That was me, PAR, who came out to explain. Election workers never have the keys to the school doors, and it’s not on our list of responsibilities to unlock anything but the voting machines and the poll books inside the poll. The custodians at the schools have the responsibility for the doors. If we hadn’t had such a massive equipment failure inside the polls, I imagine that we would have discovered within 3 or 4 minutes that the doors outside hadn’t been unlocked at 6AM and fixed it immediately.

            It would be very helpful for someone, somewhere to do a tick-tock factual story about what happened when, who was where (e.g., only 2 of the three electoral board members were in the city at 6AM Tuesday, which made crisis decision-making harder than it should have been) so this won’t happen again. Ever. The process needs some serious examination and a ground-up redesign.

  10. Bill Ney says:

    Like Deb I was a chief judge at Waterman . When we discovered the problem with the poll books with the first voter, I immediately went to the line of voters and to reassure them that we would fix the problems. It took several minutes to learn the cause and we immediately checked in the voters by cell phone communication with the register’s office. It worked but I later learned that only two voter precincts were able to accomplish this matter. We also only had seven envelopes for provisional voting, making that not a option. I believe that the election officers that I worked with did tremendous work without knowing what caused the problems and how long it would take to be back working again. However, I do not know how many voters had to leave before they voted and how many of those voters were able to return at a later time to vote. I also believe tha the electronic voting machine that was used at the poll needs to be replaced. It took over 30 minutes to get it working in the morning and it was difficult at closing time to get the printed election results. My sixteen hour work day did not seem to run as smoothly as what was reported in the DNR today.

  11. David Miller says:

    I agree that the process needs some serious examination.
    Human error on the day of elections is one thing. For example this morning while the Electoral Board reviewed the provisional ballots, they discovered missing signatures on a few occasions and other small errors like one gentleman who managed to vote a blank vote on the touch screen machine. These problems need addressing but do not overly concern me. Human error is eternal; any hopes to the contrary are valid but routinely fruitless.
    What does concern me is that we have $5,000 (per machine) voting machines that test fine prior to elections and then fail miserably as soon as the day comes. We have an election where all precincts were unable to confirm voter legitimacy due to an undisclosed computer software glitch, software that had been tested and used in previous elections. All of these problems degrade the publics faith in our system which in turn degrades voter turnout.
    I attended this morning’s Electoral Board meeting to both better understand the process and to make my own assessment of how to improve it. The Board members welcomed me graciously, put up with my incessant questions and even invited me back to the June 29th Election Review. I’ll gladly take anyone’s concerns with me or welcome you to join me for the meeting that will audit the June 15th election process (this morning’s was only to count and certify the election results), then the meeting will move to a closed session for employee performance review.
    I think we can all agree that the one thing we should be able to do is run a clean, fair and irreproachable election that leaves no doubt in the voters mind that they had their rights honored. Whatever steps we must take to ensure this outcome remain to be seen.

  12. JGFitzgerald says:

    We are still a small town and personal issues can’t be put aside easily. Certainly that was an issue with me in talking openly with Jeff Mellott. I’ve known Jeff for 20 years and have always known him to be a writer of honesty and conviction, despite an odd writing style. I’ve seen him put his job at risk for something he believed was right. So a part of me wants to call him and ask him if his story was heavily edited or just written in such haste that he didn’t truly see what it said and implied. The story wasn’t about me – it was about the errors. I’m sorry it wasn’t written that way.

    And I do concede that Tuesday’s mishaps at the polls were errors. I think that my suspicions Tuesday morning when I talked to Jeff were not far-fetched in the context of the events of 2008. Those issues were never resolved, and it’s clear they never will be. (Although I’d happily partcipate in any effort to clear the air.) It’s disappointing that the DNR finds me more interesting than it does the process, but the managing editor has readily admitted he prefers stories with conflict, and I’m sure that conflict to him, real or exaggerated, is more interestng than the facts. But I knew that when I talked to Jeff on the topic, so it’s not like I was ambushed.

    The DNR aside, however, the real reason I know Tuesday’s events were errors and not intentional is also personal. Sandra has said so. That simple. Sandra Price-Stroble has been my friend, ally, and mentor for a decade. She has been involved in the political process at least since Baliles’ campaign, back when I was following him around with a notebook. I wish there were more people in the political process with her unflagging honesty, and I’m grateful that she’s leading the Electoral Board. As I said, 2008’s issues will never be resolved, but I know that with Sandra’s leadership the issues won’t be buried either. She’ll find a way to learn from the mistakes and eventually clean up the record of miscues in the Registrar’s Office, and I’m hopeful that the newest member will help her in that.

    I’ve done the exhausting, sometimes thankless, and often dispiriting job of working as an election official in eight elections. I don’t do that because it’s fun. I do it because I deeply believe in the process, much as I used to believe in the possibilities of daily journalism. I’m glad people like Sandra, Deb, Bill, and others are willing to work so hard to keep elections honest. I wish they could do more against the errors, and against the sort of people who act as if they own the process instead of just holding it in trust.

    Jeff used to record his interviews, and if he hasn’t over-written the tape, the process of honest journalism would be served by putting a transcript on line. In the meantime, we can depend on news sources like this one. If my suspicions are posted at eight, they can be challenged, picked apart, answered, and discussed by ten. hburgnews and its ilk are the furry, forest-floor mammals eating the eggs of dinosaurs like the DNR, where an observation or suspicion is not examined or placed in context. It’s simply thrown before the readers like raw meat. They don’t even have to cook it.

  13. Ray Schneider says:

    Glad Joe is clearing up that he was not impugning anyones’ intentions or honor, because the piece in the DNR was outrageous. Joe’s enough of a computer geek to know that putting computers into ordinary hands is almost an invitation to problems especially if there are any malfunctions.

    Hopefully this was just an aberration, an oversight, bad editing or something like that. Because the idea that anyone fixed the computers to malfunction is some way is outrageous and unfounded assertion.

  14. Bill Ney says:

    The funny thing was that each precinct had a computer expert (programmer). But this was a problem that only one person could fix and had to work on every computer herself.

  15. Why would a programmer be needed at all? I don’t think you mean programmer, or that would cause me a concern in and of itself.

  16. Jenny Brown says:

    Hello. My name is Jenny Brown. I am the Assistant Registrar of Harrisonburg City. I am the Coordinator of the Electronic Poll Books. First of all, I would like to say I am sorry for the mistake I made in regards to the programing of the city poll books for the June 15th election. I am a human, and I made an error. I am the only person who can “program” the election from a password protected software program on my computer at our office. In programing the software on June 14th, there is a setting box and I forgot to check “Thank you for Voting” which bypasses the need for “flags for each voter”. I DID check the election prior to 6:00AM on Tuesday morning, on a test laptop, and made sure I was able to log into each precinct and verified the AB numbers as well as the total registered voters by each precinct. I forgot to practice checking-in a voter, as I have in the past two successful elections. When Tuesday morning rolled around at 6:01 am our office, as well as my cell phone was blowing up with concerns of the problem when you tried to check-in a voter. I immediately back tracked my steps and realized what I had done (as well as verifying this with Al Giles, the State Board EPB Coordinator). I caught my own error, and realized I had to build a new election and deploy MANUALLY to every laptop at all 5 city precincts. I didn’t have a “programmer” at each precinct. I had trained a computer savvy (not expert) person to just open and close the poll books for me. No one besides myself can program the election…I build the election and I realize this is not a good excuse to many of you, but it’s the truth. My board intends to implement policies to ensure this will never happen again. I can ensure you Harrisonburg City Registrar’s office provided a clean, honest, election. That is our goal and we will continue to strive for that in the future. As David said there will be an election review on the 29th of June and I look forward to answering any questions at that time. Thanks very much for your time and patience!

  17. David Miller says:

    No Dave I think Bill is correct. Jenny the new assistant registrar (I can’t remember her last name) came around to each polling location and installed a patched version of the software. She was notified of the problem and came up with a fix. Prior to her arrival the tech poll worker at each location was instructed to uninstall the poll software so that Jenny could install the new. The software that failed was used in previous elections so I don’t know what the glitch was but do intend to find out at the Election Review on June 29th. I’m interested also to know how Jenny diagnosed the glitch and arrived at a fix. I’m glad that the Registrars Office is doing this election review so that we all have the opportunity to understand what happened on the 15th. I’ll personally be attending to ensure that Harrisonburg’s citizens can have the utmost faith in their elections.

    • nicklaus combs says:

      I think Dave B is correct. If I had to guess Bill misused the word programmer above and really just meant a technician.

      • nicklaus combs says:

        as an addition to my above statement: an actual programmer coming on site and making edits to the software code would be a cause for concern…..

  18. Renee says:

    Speaking of programming, does our city use one of those voting software systems that are proprietary and closed-source, or is the code available for viewing?

    (They always use the excuse that hackers that could see open-source code could hack the system more easily, but open-source code where independent people can find vulnerabilities and fix them really is stronger against attack.)

    Also, I’m curious whether this “patch” was made on-the-fly to fix whatever specific problem there was with the computers that day, or if it was an update that had been released by the software company but not applied to our system before election day?

    I would like to know the nature of the failure itself if that’s known – were the computers unable to connect to a central database to verify voters or something?

    • JGFitzgerald says:

      It’s not open-source. And many issues with voting security are exempt from disclosure under the state’s FOI. I’d guess the eln s/w is not available.

  19. All hail new media! Today’s Daily News Republican has a cover story featuring Joe AND they cite HburgNews as a source. R. Kirk is back to stirring the pot. Here’s the deal, if you don’t people accusing the registrar of being a crook, investigate how her baby boy got himself caught up in voter registration-gate. You know the drill, subpoena the key players, put them under oath and collect enough evidence to clear their names. This isn’t Hazard, Ky.

    There is more than enough evidence of illegal activity.

  20. republitarian says:

    Looks like they(the DNR) did a story to make Joe look like a paranoid whack-job.

    There’s a lot of people who have made comments on blogs…and this is the first one they bothered making into a story.

  21. Myron, what was the story a couple of years ago about someone on the City Electoral Board sitting at 26th District Chairman at the same time?

  22. Like, I was looking at this statute tonight, §24.2-106 of the Code of Virginia, and tonight’s relevant part says:

    “No member of an electoral board shall serve as the chairman of a state, local or district level political party committee or as a paid worker in the campaign of a candidate for nomination or election to an office filled by election in whole or in part by the qualified voters of the jurisdiction of the electoral board. “

    Now VPAP says here, http://www.vpap.org/vendors/profile/details/40150?committee_id=3048 , that Suzanne Obenshain was paid $297 for supplies…does a reimbursement for supplies mean “paid worker”?

    Ah…I’m just thinking out loud…too much camping down at Douthat last night.

    • BANDIT says:

      Man…I love camping, I’ve even got a 12ft fishing boat with a trolling motor. Let me know next time.:)

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