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Issues delay final election results

by Tim Tedeschi - ttedeschi@chronicle-tribune.com

An unexpectedly high number of absentee ballots and issues with election machine cards caused Election Day results to come in later than usual, according to county officials.

While the polls closed at 6 p.m., final results with all precincts reported were not available until after 10 p.m. on Tuesday.

According to unofficial results, 1,863 Grant County voters submitted absentee ballots, including 1,060 paper absentee ballots and 803 walk-in absentee votes on Election Day. Clerk of the Circuit Court Pam Harris said Wednesday that her staff did not expect such a high number.

Harris and Election Deputy Nancy Bryant explained that with Grant County’s current election protocol, absentee ballots are required to be verified by hand by a central count team that began its work at 1 p.m. This year, the team was made up of three groups of two, with one Republican and one Democrat each.

Each group goes through a stack of absentee ballots and compares the signature on the application for an absentee vote with the signature on the ballot itself, and both parties must agree the signatures match. If one or both workers conclude the signatures don’t match, they stop their processing and take the ballot in question to the election board to make a final determination.

Harris said the bipartisan teams were experienced, did a “wonderful” job and were usually unanimous when they believed there were discrepancies between the signatures. However, a combination of stopping the process to deal with discrepancies and the sheer volume of ballots slowed the process down, Harris says.

Bryant estimated the absentee ballots were not finished being counted until several hours after the polls had closed, between around 8 or 9 p.m.

“I would like to say because of the amount of absentee ballots we had, we should have had a larger team out there. But, keep in mind, that this team, the central count team, was budgeted in 2018,” Harris said. “Maybe I should’ve as I saw the numbers building, I should’ve gone and asked for special help from the (county) council... That maybe would’ve been a good idea.”

Harris noted her department’s budget request for next year’s election included more staffing including for the central count team due to it being a presidential election year.

Grant County Republican Party Chair Darren Reese and Democratic Party Chair Terry Stodghill were both at the courthouse as the ballots were being counted. Reese said while the process was “excruciating,” everyone involved shared a common goal of making sure the counts were accurate.

“I hated that my candidates had to wait that long, I hated that the general public didn’t get a sense of satisfaction they wanted to have, but sometimes these things take time,” Reese said. “And at the end of the day, every vote is important and everyone’s vote should be as important as everyone else’s.”

Stodghill said he believed the central count team usually has 12 people rather than six, which would have helped speed up the process.

“You’re going to have that once in a while,” Stodghill said of the time it took to count absentee ballots. “It’s going to happen, you’re just going to run into problems and difficulties and you just sit there and you wait.”

On top of the absentee ballots not being completed until later than expected, Bryant said Election Day ballots from the polls could not be counted until the absentees were finished. Bryant said Microvote, the company the county contracts with for election equipment, advised not to mix absentee and day-of ballots in order to keep like votes together and ensure data is backed up properly.

“They said it can create more of a mess because you’d rather keep your like votes,” Bryant said. “It’s easier if you have it done in the blocks of the like because we’re using two different readers.”

Additionally, Harris said some of the information cards from the voting machines were not reading properly while tabulating votes at the courthouse. Because of this, a bipartisan group had to travel to the polling location and physically bring the voting machines back, Bryant said.

“Normally... just the cards are picked up,” Bryant said. “But then when we had to figure out the card and the machine and which one needed and ran on what. That had to be resolved election night.”

Bryant said it is typical protocol for the election machines themselves to be locked at the polling locations until they are picked up the day after Election Day. The cards themselves contain the voting information, and the machines are useless without the cards much like a car is useless without a key, she explained.

Once the machines were brought back to the courthouse, the information cards were able to be read properly. Harris and Bryant both stressed that there was no foul play and the elections workers, election board and party representatives were all working hard to get the fully accurate results out as soon as possible.

“To me, that is the biggest thing is getting stuff accurate,” Bryant said.

Harris said she apologizes to the candidates, public and media for not providing more communication and updates throughout the night.

“Even though it would’ve been I’m reporting that there’s nothing to update to report, I apologize for that,” she said. “That falls on my shoulders and I apologize for that, but as far as my team, they did exactly what they were supposed to do.”

Harris said in addition to budgeting more for staff for next year’s presidential primary and election, officials are looking into a variety of changes to make the voting process smoother from start to finish.

“There are things we are looking into and that as an election board and even party wise, both parties, we’re looking into possibly vote centers and electronic poll machines,” she said. “Those will help the process at the polling locations. We will still have the absentee issue.”

Reese said there have been continual issues with counting votes spanning multiple clerks and that the county’s technology is below average compared to other counties in the state. He said he hopes county government, both parties and other stakeholders can come together to find ways to make the process run better.

Specifically, Reese mentioned digital technology for voter ID confirmation, opening voting centers for several weeks leading up to Election Day and overall improving technology to make the process better.

Stodghill said as more people absentee vote, it is imperative that the funding and preparation leading up to Election Day increases.

“We just have to make sure coming up next May that we have enough people to take care of the matter,” he said. “We just have got to be more prepared...This is actually going to be a presidential election, so it’s going to have to be all hands on deck.”

Both party chairmen said they were not planning to file any complaints concerning the tabulating of election results and were unaware of any of their respective party’s candidates planning to do so.