Computers failure unhappy returns

Officials demand answers as crash delays vote count

Election 99

November 03, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Tim Craig | Caitlin Francke and Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

The city's highly lauded $6.5 million computerized vote counting system crashed last night, delaying results and victory parties and causing elections officials to demand an explanation.

In an election to determine the city's first new mayor in 12 years, about 20 workers had to type in the results. The vote tallies, normally completed by 10: 30 p.m., were projected to be finished early today.

The breakdown cast a pall over elections headquarters, where workers had high hopes for the election, knowing they were using some of the best technology in the country.

"I'm hurt that this happened, because to some degree we let down the voters and the citizens," said Marvin L. Cheatham, president of the Baltimore Election Board. "I'm so sorry."

Last night's problems occurred when the machines failed to electronically read the cartridges that contained the vote tallies, Cheatham said.

City elections director Barbara Jackson declined to comment at the request of the election board, Cheatham said. "This was not a human error. It was a computer error," Cheatham said.

Cheatham said he will talk to the machine's manufacturer, Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment, Inc. of Jamestown, N.Y., to ascertain what went wrong and to ensure it doesn't happen again.

"We want a quick answer and a remedy," Cheatham said. "We hopefully will build a better chicken coop once we find out what the glitch is."

The system, designed to take information from the city's 989 voting machines, was installed last year. Cheatham said that despite power outages at some polling stations yesterday, "the machines kept operating the way they were supposed to."

"Everything on our end was done right," he said. "The computer stuff is on their side, which is out of our control."

Phil Foster, regional manager of Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment, said this is the first such problem he has seen in his 10 years with the company, which operates more than 20,000 voting machines in 50 municipalities nationwide.

"It was tested today," Foster said yesterday.

Gene M. Raynor, former longtime head of the city election board and later the state election board, said he could not remember delays of this magnitude.

"It's absolutely disgraceful," said Raynor, who headed the city board from 1970 to 1987 and the state board from 1987 to 1997. "They spent $6 million for that system. It's terrible."

Raynor said election results under the old, non-computerized system were sometimes delayed, but that the returns were always tabulated within several hours after the polls closed.

He laid the blame on city elections administrators.

"These things are supposed to be checked and rechecked before hand," he said. "Barbara Jackson's incompetent, and the whole world knows it."

Sun staff writers Laurie Willis, Eric Siegel and Rafael Alvarez contributed to this report.

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