A bad battery about the size of a nickel caused a roughly seven-hour delay in the reporting of Baker County’s election results last week and exposed how small oversights can have big impacts when they occur on election night.
Everything was going fine, Supervisor of Elections Nita Crawford said, until about 4:30 pm when her staff began setting up to download early voting totals, which are usually the first results announced after polls close at 7 pm.
That’s when elections staff discovered a small battery manufactured by Sony, which powers the memory card storing early voting results, was dead, and the information was lost.
“We said well, we have to re-run all the early voting ballots,” the elections supervisor said the following day. “We go in there and get three [voting] machines going, putting ballots in. That took us up until about 7:30.”The election night glitch was a first for Ms. Crawford and her two full-time employees, plus the county’s IT manager, who assists during elections. The office is well known for processing election results quickly. In fact, Baker County is usually the first of Florida’s 67 to report its totals to the Florida Division of Elections in Tallahassee.
When it came time to download the recount tallies from the three voting machines, elections officials, having never done this before, realized they failed to assign each machine’s memory card a unique ID.
So after downloading the first machine’s data, the computer accepting the voting results would not accept additional results because they appeared to be duplicate results from the first machine. Staff then assigned the cards from the two other machines unique IDs and fed two-thirds of the early voting ballots through the machines once again.
But after adding up the number of early voting ballots run through all three machines, the total was more than 1000 ballots short of the total noted after early voting ended three days before — 5479 ballots.
“That’s when I went back into the vault and found a bag [of early voting ballots] I had missed,” explained Debbie Cain, assistant supervisor of elections. Those ballots were then fed through a voting machine, but the total was still off by 673 ballots.
The clock had passed 1 am.
“That’s when we were in panic mode,” said Ms. Cain. “Big time panic mode.”
In a last ditch effort, though tired and despondent, they decided to collect all the early voting ballots, which were in bags labeled with the date they were cast during early voting, and lay them out in chronological order.
“Every night we take the ballots out of the early voting bin … ” Ms. Cain said. “We put them in a bag and [write] ‘Early Voting’ on them and the date and time, and we seal them before taking them into the vault. We did that every night. When we got all the bags laid out, we saw Tuesday, October 30 was missing. And I knew they were in there, because we toted them every night.”
On a shelf in the vault, they soon found two bags dated October 30, but labeled “Absentee,” denoting the ballots had arrived via the mail. But inside the bags were ballots with the letters ‘EV’ printed in the top right corner, marking them as early voting ballots.
After running those ballots through the voting machine about 2 am, elections staff had finally found the unaccounted for 673 ballots.
“We had worked from Saturday the 27th getting here at six in the morning, and not leaving until eight at night, for eights day straight,” said Ms. Cain of early voting.
“We got Sunday off, thank the Lord, but then we started two more hectic days,” she said. “That’s not an excuse for what happened, but it was a lot of stress.”
The election results were unofficial until the canvassing board — Ms. Crawford, county Judge Joey Williams and county Commissioner Adam Giddens — certified the outcome on November 18, two days after the deadline for absentee ballots to arrive from overseas.
This week the outcome was final; the incumbents having swept the three races for local offices, some by slimmer margins that others.
The final vote tallies: for sheriff, Joey Dobson 8656 (76.91%), Cameron Coward 2598 (23.09%); for county commission district 3, Gordon Crews 5680 (51.42%), Leonard Davis 5367 (48.58%); and for county commission district 5, Mark Hartley 5955 (53.67%), Eddie Davis, Jr. 5141 (46.33%).
Elections officials will not soon forget the 2012 contest.
Ms. Crawford said in the future more care will be taken in labeling ballot bags and memory card batteries will be replaced before each election or the cards will be swapped with ones that don’t need batteries.
“It [the election] would’ve been finished the first time if the battery hadn’t been dead. That’s when we had to reload everything … ” she added. “We put all the ballots in the vault in case we have to have a recount and this shows the machine counts accurately because all the ballots were put back in and the total came out exactly the same as it did when early voting ended … I don’t want the voters to wonder.”