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Human error, not new high-tech ballot machines, to blame for Pennington's late election results
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Human error, not new high-tech ballot machines, to blame for Pennington's late election results

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The Pennington County Auditor's Office used a $232,000 federal grant on two new high-tech ballot-counting machines this year to increase the speed and accuracy of its elections.

So, how did it work?

As with any new technology, there was a learning curve and bugs in the system that led to a long night for Auditor Julie Pearson and her staff, forced a tedious process of recounting or re-creating thousands of ballots on the fly and produced election results two hours later than usual.

And yet, the problems ultimately had nothing to do with the new Election Systems & Software DS850 ballot machines, but rather were due to human error and inexperience with the technology, Pearson said on Friday.

"The technology did exactly what it was supposed to do," Pearson said. "We just had to change our processes."

The delays in Pennington County were just one example of South Dakota's voting problems that made election night stressful for auditors as well as candidates, voters and media members.

Release of the entire state's set of results by the Secretary of State's Office was delayed by an hour because two Shannon County poll workers didn't show up on time.

That was followed by the ballot-counting problems in Pennington and Minnehaha counties, the state's two most populous counties. Pearson said the ballot problems in Minnehaha were much the same as in Pennington. Minnehaha's results weren't known until late morning on Wednesday; Pearson said Pennington's came in earlier than that because she called in extra staff members Tuesday night.

Pennington County's problems fell into three basic areas.

First, about 10,000 absentee ballots had to be recounted in full Tuesday night because they had been folded in the mail and that created an accordion-like mashing of ballots in the tray into which they fall after being counted. Then, when the machines jammed, poll workers misunderstood the meaning of the option "clear the batch" when the machine asked if some ballots should be cleared for recounting.

That led to confusion and inaccurate matching of ballots received and those counted. Ultimately, the machines were adjusted a bit, and the decision was made to re-run all ballots through the machines, which took about two hours, Pearson said. Workers also had to go back to the original absentee-ballot envelopes and recount those to set a baseline for how many absentee ballots there should be.

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Next, the machines were not calibrated right, so they were kicking out too many ballots to be reviewed or re-created. "We were kicking out a lot of ballots that we weren't sure why and what to do with," Pearson said.

State law requires that ballot machines be set to kick out only blank ballots, not those with under-votes or over-votes, which are reviewed in a recount situation only. But Pennington's machines were kicking out far more than that, which means the ballots had to be examined, re-created and then recounted.

Re-creating ballots requires "a hell of a lot of time," Pearson said, because each original and re-created ballot must be reviewed by not only an auditor's employee, but also both a Republican and Democratic observer, and then submitted into the machines for recounting.

Finally, poll workers at the precincts are required to stamp each ballot they certify as being correctly cast. Some of those stamps were placed too low or high on the page, so the super-sensitive machines read those marks as possible votes and kicked those ballots out, too.

It all made for a tense evening. But Pearson insisted that the vote totals presented were accurate, and that the integrity of the voting process was not affected.

"We'd rather be slow and accurate than speedy and inaccurate," she said. "We got very accurate vote counts."

Pearson said the systems were tested before the election, but added that those tests invariably run perfectly, and that problems typically arise only when thousands of actual voters mark ballots, and poll workers must perform in the field.

Pearson wanted voters to know that she and her staff have already made changes to prevent future problems. Absentee ballots will be folded only once, instead of in a tri-fold, to make them easier for machines to read.

Also, a box will be printed onto future ballots to ensure the poll worker stamps are put in precisely the correct spot. And she and her staff have learned how to set the machines so they kick out only those ballots required by law to be kicked out.

Secretary of State Jason Gant said Friday that he considered it a "near flawless election." He said having two poll workers out of 700 not showing up on time is a good rate, and that the ballot issues in Minnehaha and Pennington counties did not affect the integrity of the election.

"It’s just getting used to new machines," Gant said. "They went through all the testing and education and learning, and it’s only going to get better."

Gant said he understands some results were delayed, but that it was acceptable given the desire to be right.

"The press and the public want election results immediately," he said. "However, the reason it took longer than normal was that everyone was making sure we had accurate results."

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