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May. 18, 2006

 

What went wrong at the polls?

Hundreds of malfunctions were reported on primary day. The city commissioners promised a thorough inquiry.

 

By Marcia Gelbart

Inquirer Staff Writer

 

Angry and embarrassed over hundreds of malfunctioning voting machines in Tuesday's primary, the Philadelphia City Commissioners' Office yesterday vowed to launch a "thorough and complete" investigation of what went wrong in perhaps the city's biggest election-day mishap in years.

 

So far, nobody knows for sure.

 

All 3,526 machines were tested the same way they have always been tested since the city bought them five years ago, election officials said.

 

Even the election watchdog group Committee of Seventy reported nothing amiss when conducting its own routine testing last week of two random machines in each of the city's 67 wards.

 

"This does not shine brightly upon this office," an obviously disappointed Deputy Commissioner Edward Schulgen said at yesterday's meeting of the commissioners, who oversee city elections. "I've been here since 1984 and I'm proud of my employees and this office... [but] we will not tolerate this malfunctioning again."

 

He said the investigation would include scrutiny of how the machines were tested and transported, and how repair technicians were dispatched.

 

Officials said they could not confirm precisely how many machines were affected by the meltdown. Various campaign officials said they were aware of at least 150 that had malfunctioned.

 

No type of fraud or intentional foul-up was suspected, officials said.

 

Instead, speculation focused on whether screws used to seal doors covering voter tapes were tightened too much. The problems seemed to have occurred most frequently in machines that were opened during the course of the day so election judges could clear paper jams. Often the voter tapes spilled out once the machines were opened.

 

Most of those jams reportedly occurred when write-in votes were cast.

 

Whatever the case, an explanation will be slow in coming.

 

Officials yesterday were waiting to hear back from a New Jersey company, ElecTech, that assisted the city in repairing the machines.

 

With so many problems occurring at once, there were also significant delays in trying to get the machines operating again.

 

"The thing that upset me the most was the response time," said City Commissioner Edgar Howard, citing the two- to three-hour wait to repair seven machines broken in the 10th Ward, which he leads.

 

The day's headaches were compounded by a misprint in Monday's Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, inaccurately reporting the locations of 93 polling places. Although the papers ran a corrected list on Tuesday, the mistake generated enough calls from voters to add to the workload of the already overwhelmed election offices.

 

Had the breakdowns occurred in November during the general election, "this could have been a catastrophe," said Committee of Seventy chief executive Zack Stalberg.

 

Contact staff writer Marcia Gelbart at 215-854-2338 or mgelbart@phillynews.com.

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