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State plans to investigate delays in Sedgwick County election results

  • Eagle staff
  • Published Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, at 2:07 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, at 6:52 a.m.

The secretary of state’s office plans to investigate what caused delays and inaccuracies in the posting of election results on the Sedgwick County election office website Tuesday evening, state election director Brad Bryant said Wednesday.

Bryant said that the problems may have stemmed from how Sedgwick County elections officials loaded information from voting machines into a computer that tabulates the totals. That reversed earlier speculation that software glitches may have caused the problem.

Tabitha Lehman, the county’s election commissioner, acknowledged the delays that surfaced election night were “user error.” She added that her office will be working with Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s office and the software vendor to resolve issues before the city and school board elections in early 2013.

“The plan is to go back to square one and really dissect it,” Lehman said. “We’ll continue to make improvements and make sure we get proper training.”

Errors in reporting the number of precincts counted made it impossible to tell whether the returns online were full or partial results. The full results didn’t come until almost 2 a.m. on Wednesday.

The loading error appears to mirror the problems that led to delayed results during the Aug. 7 primary election. State officials discussed that problem with Lehman and her staff after the primary and thought they had found a solution, said Bryant, the deputy assistant secretary of state.

“I think we recognize that people make mistakes, human beings make mistakes,” he said. “What we try to do is correct them and go on. It looks like an error that occurred before happened again and that’s part of the frustration with the situation.”

In Sedgwick County, Republicans and Democrats agreed that the situation is not just frustrating, but intolerable.

The nationwide presidential race was called before the first Sedgwick County returns were posted — and those were only the ballots of people who had voted before Tuesday’s Election Day.

Since Lehman took over the office from former election commissioner Bill Gale in November 2011, “you’ve had three elections and all three had problems,” said Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita. “It doesn’t seem to be getting better; it seems to be getting worse. Sedgwick County is almost turning into Florida north.”

Bryant said he and other state elections officials will meet with Lehman and her staff in Wichita next week to ask questions, identify what went wrong and work on solutions. The secretary of state’s office doesn’t have any legal investigative authority, so the meeting is largely a fact-finding one.

Bryant said his office has fielded complaints about the delays from Sedgwick County candidates. At least two candidates have suggested that Lehman should be removed from her position.

Kobach appointed Lehman to the position to complete Gale’s four-year term, which ends in July 2013. State law says he can remove an election commissioner for “official misconduct,” a term that isn’t clearly defined, Bryant said.

Bryant said Kobach is not contemplating removing Lehman, and he said Kobach is withholding public comment until after his office discusses the problems with Sedgwick County officials.

Ward said he did not think Lehman’s conduct amounted to official misconduct. But he questioned whether Lehman is the right person for the job and suggested that Kobach ask her to step down.

“Bring back Bill Gale,” Ward said. “He seemed to be able to run an election.”

Republicans also were frustrated about the problems in counting votes, but stopped short of calling for Lehman’s removal.

Ben Sauceda, secretary of the county Republican Party and an unsuccessful candidate for the Sedgwick County Commission, said he and Lehman had been precinct committee members together and are friends.

He said the problem seems to be one of either software or training, and he urged Kobach to work with Lehman to get it straightened out.

“The state of Ohio was called for President Obama before we had advance ballots out of Sedgwick County,” he said. “We can’t have that.”

But he added that he’s confident that the final tally is right.

“If they came out with them two hours earlier, it would not have changed the outcome,” he said.

Mark Gietzen, a leader in the hard-fought battle over an initiative to fluoridate Wichita drinking water, said the delay messed up the campaign’s election night parties. The first one he went to, a tea party event at Mike’s Steak House, broke up long before the votes came in and everyone left feeling sort of depressed.

He then went to a Republican Party event and found himself cheering – by himself – when he saw what appeared to be final results on the fluoride vote about midnight. Then, “Somebody said, ‘It’s only one percent, you idiot.’ ”

Kelly Arnold, county clerk and vice president of the state Republican Party, said several GOP candidates complained to him about the delayed results and confusion.

“It’s frustrating for the candidates and the citizens, waiting to get results ... seeing everyone else’s coming in around the country and everyone else’s around the state,” he said.

More training

Lehman, 35, acknowledged that more training is necessary for a staff that is relatively new to the office.

She has been in the office the longest, with about 3 ½ years, including a year as deputy commissioner under Gale before filling his spot.

There was significant turnover in the office after Gale left, which left the office without much experience, she said.

“The learning curve is steep, especially during a presidential election year,” Lehman said.

Staffing has also been sliced since the 2008 presidential election year, when the office had nine full-time employees, including Gale. This year there are four, including Lehman, county budget director David Miller said.

Staff has been pared down as the county invested in more technology that supposedly reduced the workload, Miller said. New voting election equipment was purchased in 2002.

Malfunction

The delays Tuesday centered on malfunctioning voting machines at several sites and the problem of posting advance ballots.

Advance ballots were ready to be posted at 8:30 p.m. But when workers tried to do so, they realized that software was going to read them as if all 289 precincts had reported results. That also happened in the primary, misleading vote watchers and candidates into thinking results were final long before they actually were.

Lehman didn’t want to repeat that mistake, so she delayed posting the advance votes to the county’s website until the problem was fixed. That never happened. She finally had the advance results posted at 10:15 p.m. and issued a warning that the 100 percent reporting of precincts that would show on the website was incorrect.

That was a key issue because the Election Day results can’t be posted until all of the advance results are up.

“I should have just reported them at 8:30 and said we have the same problem again,” Lehman said. “We learned that lesson.”

If the advance ballots had been posted nearly two hours earlier, it would have greatly sped up the process of getting all the results online, she said.

To help correct mistakes from the primary, she said, the office did conduct dry voting runs before the general election. Nothing happened to indicate there was a problem.

Despite the delays, Lehman said she hopes people remember that nearly 180,000 people voted Tuesday “with minimal problems.”

Gale’s support

One person who can understand election night pressure is Gale, who served eight years as election commissioner in Sedgwick County. He is now inspector general in the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s Division of Health Care Finance.

“There is incredible pressure on election night. Incredible. ... That’s part of the reason eight years was enough for me,” Gale said.

“Trying to get results out, trying to make sure they’re as accurate as possible ... and it seems like there’s always issues that pop up. Any issues that come up, you’re trying to resolve as quickly as you can, and you’re going on whatever amount of sleep and energy you have after all the weeks leading up to it. It’s just an incredible situation to be in, and eight years of it was my limit.”

Gale said Lehman was his key backup person during his time in the job, and he recommended her to succeed him.

“She’s very talented. I felt she was the best qualified to take over the job,” Gale said.

Contributing: Rick Plumlee, Brent D. Wistrom, Dion Lefler and Fred Mann of The Wichita Eagle.

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