Machine malfunction delays final count

There was a stream of rejection receipts piling up on the floor of the conference room at the county courthouse, pumping out of two 14-year-old Optech III-Ps. The Eagle/Scott Mallory

CANYON CITY - Election day in Grant County got extended Tuesday night because the counting machines went on the fritz.

"We're not going to get done tonight," County Clerk Kathy McKinnon said. "We'll work tomorrow."

It was 8:30 p.m., and all the ballots from District 3, the biggest in the county, which includes John Day, with more than 3,000 ballots expected, hadn't arrived.

There are four other voting districts, or precincts, in the county.

Things looked bleak, but by 10:30 p.m., 85 percent of the total vote was counted.

The secretary of state's office gave its OK to extend the count until today.

The finish of the count will be mainly write-in votes.

It was estimated that voter turnout in the county was 80 percent.

In the race for sheriff, preliminary results showed that incumbent Glenn Palmer had 2,035 votes and write-in candidate Steve McGuire had 705 votes, with approximately a third of the write-in votes left to be counted.

In a tight race between incumbent Long Creek Mayor Cliff Smith and challenger Dale Martin, Smith had 58 votes and Martin had 47.

Scott Myers will likely keep his seat on the county court. He had 1,963 votes. His opponent, Terry Sowa, had 900.

McKinnon received 2,386 votes to a write-in candidate's 27.

County Treasurer Kathy Smith received 2,274 votes and will likely be crunching numbers at the courthouse for another term.

Final vote count was expected to be done by 5 p.m. today.

The Eagle will post those numbers on its Web site when they are available.

The last ballot to be hand-delivered to the clerk's office was dropped in the box at 7:58 p.m. by John Stearns, who was working for OTEC in La Grande and had to rush to cast his vote.

Stearns designs power lines for homes and businesses. He has worked for OTEC for 14 years, and has lived in John Day for 12 of them.

A registered Independent, Stearns marked his ballot for George W. Bush.

"I'm proud to vote for Bush," said Stearns. "I think he'd be the president to protect the right to bear arms - gun ownership."

The scene in the courthouse wasn't Florida in 2000. There weren't chads hanging from punch-card ballots, but there was a stream of rejection receipts piling up on the floor of the conference room at the county courthouse, pumping out of two 14-year-old Optech III-Ps that chose election day to get temperamental - the one day every so often they have to work and they take an electronic version of a sick day.

"They're kicking back pretty close to half," Barb Keener said.

Keener was one of several election counters on the job Tuesday night, and they were right on schedule and working fine; it was the machines that were getting tired.

McKinnon and her crew ran four test runs with sample ballots at 8 a.m. Tuesday and there wasn't a problem.

"First real ballot was when the problem started," McKinnon said.

McKinnon called around and heard that Harney and Curry counties were having similar problems. She figured it was the ballots, but couldn't pinpoint what was wrong.

McKinnon got on the phone to the secretary of state's office for advice, and she was asked if the windows were open.

"They told me to close the windows and turned on a humidifier," she said. "We didn't have a problem with humidity. This isn't Curry," which is on the southern coast of the state.

The election workers, about a dozen or so, including Walter and Agnes Hall, who were there as observers - "To check accuracy, and to make sure election laws are followed," Agnes Hall said - still had their sense of humor, but it was obvious the day hadn't gone right virtually from the start and it seemed no proper end was in sight.

To coax the machines to read the ballots, the workers enhanced the voter marks - filled in the arrow better - and duplicated the ballots and ran the copies through, but nothing seemed to work.

"We've tried them upside down and backward," McKinnon said, making a joke, but she hadn't yet done any special dances around the machines.

"Said some special words," Brenda Percy said, and there were smiles and laughter.

Election workers started opening ballots Oct. 20 and getting them ready for the official count. Their job was to check the signatures against the voter card, separate the ballots into the individual precincts, open the envelopes and then make sure the written information matched what was put into the computer.

They found something out of whack every day, except one, "And that was a wonderful day," Betty Retherford said.

While Retherford, Marilyn Stout and Lenore Thomason and Alice West, the county recorder and deputy clerk, were making sure the ballot information matched - and there wasn't one hanging voter - Keener, Wilma Hawk and Peggy Williams struggled at the machines.

"This is the longest day in history," McKinnon said.

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