Long way to go to resolve election mess

With a new paper ballot system in place for its first general election, the Suffolk County Board of Elections knew it was in for a trying Election Day this year.
The troubles started early, with some residents having difficulty figuring out the new way to cast their votes. And the problems ended late, with many election districts not reporting final results until after midnight.
But nobody expected things to be this out of whack.
More than a week later, a winner has yet to be determined in a pair of local races that have seen major vote swings during the vote-counting process.
On election night, Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) went to sleep with a lead of nearly 3,500 votes. By Friday, after the memory cards in each of the voting machines had been double-checked, he learned that he trailed Republican challenger Randy Altschuler of St. James by about 400 votes.
Assembly candidate Dan Losquadro (R-Shoreham) left headquarters with only a 40 vote lead last Tuesday over incumbent Democrat Marc Alessi. When contacted Saturday, he said he now led by nearly 900 votes.
How could that be?
“If you know the process, you know how it can happen,” said Wayne Rogers, Republican commissioner for the Suffolk County Board of Elections.
That’s because human error can enter into the equation on election night. Results are phoned in by poll workers who read them off a tally sheet before entering them onto a worksheet. The person on the other end of the phone then keys the numbers into a computer and publishes them online.
With a new system in place, it is widely believed that workers had a more difficult time reading the tally sheet this year. And if that was the case, it wasn’t just a handful of workers having difficulty.
“The information we’ve received shows different numbers now than on election night in 38 percent of election districts,” said Bishop spokesperson Jon Schneider. “It’s not like there are only 10 election districts that wildly shifted.”
In the Assembly race, Mr. Losquadro said he picked up votes in several districts that had Mr. Alessi ahead by a wide margin.
“I knew my numbers were going to move,” he said. “When you see some election districts that had 92 percent or 86 percent for Alessi, you figure you’ll gain some votes there. I didn’t see any anomalies like that where I was leading big.”
The dramatic shift now has local Democrats, who have lost nearly 5,000 votes since election day in the two races, calling for a hand recount. Republicans have not expressed support for that, insisting any errors were not the fault of the new machines. Lawsuits were expected to be filed by Democrats early this week demanding the hand recount.
“At this point the only way to be sure of the accuracy of the count is to do a full hand recount of all the ballots,” said Mr. Schneider, who also serves as chairman of the Brookhaven Town Democratic Committee. “There is a reason that Suffolk County residents insisted on having a paper backup and these circumstances demand we use it.”
It was a far cry from the tone of the Bishop camp last week, when they all but declared victory.
“The only people who think this race is ‘too close to call’ are on Randy Altschuler’s payroll,” Mr. Schneider said the Wednesday after Election Day. “Tim Bishop is leading by a solid margin, which will only grow as we count absentee ballots.”
Altschuler spokesperson Rob Ryan said the results now show the Altschuler camp had been right all along in its decision to not concede.
“We knew the Bishop team had jumped the gun on claiming victory,” he said.
On Monday, the Board of Elections began its state-mandated audit of 3 percent of all machines, according to Mr. Rogers. Absentee and military ballots won’t even be counted for another week. There are bout 9,500 absentee ballots in play in the congressional race.
Mr. Ryan said he believes a winner will not be declared in the congressional race until the end of the month.
Mr. Rogers, speaking in a Board of Elections building “filled with lawyers,” declined to estimate when the 2010 election finally would be over.
“We have a lot still to do,” he said.
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