Private election tabulating firm missed some votes at Ore City and New Diana
by PHILLIP WILLIAMS
May 18, 2014 | 1686 views | 0 0 comments | 26 26 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Both candidates for an unexpired term on the Ore City City Council have agreed to let a coin flip settle the outcome of last Saturday’s election after a delay in tabulating some votes showed Wednesday they tied, said City Secretary Gail Weir. The delay in tabulation also altered the original vote totals, but not the outcome, of Saturday’s election in which New Diana ISD voters rejected a $15 million bond issue proposal.

The original unofficial returns released Saturday night for the Ore City election showed Steve Heim leading incumbent Jeannette Orms by four votes, 48-44, but the complete count showed they received 55 each, Ms. Weir said. Rather than having a recount or special election, either of which would cost the city money, the candidates approved having the flip at a special City Council meeting set for 7 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, she said.

The delay also showed that Ore City voters renewed the one-fourth of one percent sales tax for street repairs by a vote of 79 to 26 in unofficial complete returns. The originally-announced count was 65 to 23.

State law allows the coin flip option in Ore City after the council canvasses the election returns on Tuesday, Ms. Weir said. Asked Wednesday who would decide who called the flip, she said “These are two nice people, and they will work that out.”

The tie was discovered after Hart InterCivic, the firm tabulating the votes at the Upshur County Courthouse in Gilmer on Saturday night, originally failed to count the votes from one of the city’s electronic voting machines and some of the votes in the nearby New Diana bond election, Ms. Weir said.

She had discovered that the election returns she was given Saturday night did not match the total number of voters, and said she called the County Clerk’s Office on Monday to report it. A court order from 115th District Judge Lauren Parish was required to finish the count in the elections.

The bond issue, originally reported as having lost by 540 to 133, was actually rejected 690 to 240 in complete returns certified by the New Diana School Board on Thursday night, said a school spokeswoman.

Deputy Upshur County Clerk Greg Dodson told The Mirror on Thursday that the male Hart InterCivic employee who tabulated the votes had no prior experience at it, and Dodson said he believed that led to an honest mistaken failure to tabulate some of the votes Saturday night. The deputy clerk said there was nothing suspicious “in my mind” about the snafu.

The City of Ore City and New Diana ISD had contracted with Hart to tally the votes. Hart sold Upshur County the election machinery that was used in Saturday’s elections.

Dodson explained that the problem involved small steel cards called MBBs (Mobile Ballot Box) cards.

A bulk of such cards are programmed for an election, and a scanner records both paper ballot and electronic machine votes on the cards, the deputy clerk explained. More cards are programmed than needed in case of machine failure or other problems, he said.

Since only some of the cards are used for early voting and election day, Dodson said, whoever is tallying the votes ends up with a pile of both used and unused cards. While it is Upshur County’s policy to run all the cards through a machine, the Hart representative did not, and some that were not run through had votes on them, the deputy clerk said.

Some of the uncounted votes in the New Diana election were discovered Saturday night after Key was given the 540 to 133 figures and released them to The Mirror at the courthouse. Key said he had returned to Diana, and just emailed what he thought were the complete returns, when he received a call from Dodson informing him not all the votes had been counted.

The superintendent said he then returned to the courthouse in Gilmer for the additional tabulation, only to learn Wednesday that there were up to 30 more votes from the election machinery which hadn’t been tabulated.

On Monday, said Dodson, Ms. Weir had “called with concerns” that the number of votes in her unofficial election returns did not match the total number of votes. Some 18 votes cast by machine hadn’t been counted, although all paper ballots had, the Deputy Clerk said.

After telling Ms. Weir to contact Hart, Dodson said, he called and went to see District Attorney Billy Byrd. Dodson said that because he had sealed leftover election materials, including the MBB cards, in a metal ballot box, as law required, Byrd told him law required an order from Judge Parish to open the box. (Byrd told The Mirror he typed the text for the order).

After Dodson petitioned for the order, which he said Judge Parish issued Tuesday, the voting tabulation was completed Wednesday, when it was discovered that electronic votes in the New Diana election had not been counted, either, Dodson said.

“To me, the onus on this debacle was on Hart,” Supt. Key told The Mirror Wednesday. “I’m going to attribute it to human error.”

He said Hart had offered no explanation for the problem “other than apologies. I haven’t had a chance to talk to the company yet.” Ms. Weir also said Hart hasn’t offered her an explanation.

“It’s not anybody at the courthouse” who was responsible for the snafu, nor was there a faulty machine or flawed computer algorhithm, said Key. The County Clerk’s Office had declined to handle the election, and “In the courthouse, there is really no one in charge” during the vote tabulation, the superintendent said.

Key said the school and the City of Ore City had jointly contracted with Hart to save on election costs. He indicated he knew of no other firm which could tabulate the votes.

In another unusual twist to the Ore City election, incumbent Orms ran for the 1-year unexpired term of the late Bonnie Caldwell’s seat rather than seek reelection to a full 2-year term for her own seat. Orms, 55, is an insurance agent while Heim, 41, is an emergency medical technician.

The election for mayor and some other council seats in the town of more than 800 was canceled since none of those offices were contested.
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