Monday, January 15, 2001

N.J. critic says booth proved not so fail-safe

By Jeff Gelles

There is no debate over whether a Sequoia Pacific electronic voting machine malfunctioned and had to be replaced in South Brunswick, N.J., on Nov. 7. The only dispute is over what happened as a result.

 Middlesex County officials and the manufacturer say no votes were lost. But Republican poll worker Paul C. Murray is convinced otherwise.

 Murray began the day confident in the machines, which were first used throughout the county in 1999. He knew county officials considered them fail-safe - unable to lose a record of any vote that is cast - so he wasn't especially worried when he learned that 65 voters had used the broken machine.

 Until, that is, he saw a printout of the day's results.

 From those first 65 voters, it said, two freeholder candidates, one Democrat and one Republican, had received not a single vote.

 To Murray, a retired physicist, that seemed "statistically impossible." Each freeholder candidate was paired with a running mate of the same party, and voters could vote for both. Most of the time, Murray said, that is what they do - as the results for the rest of the day at his polling place and throughout the county demonstrated.

 On the replacement machine in District 3, Democrat John Pulomena received 272 votes, and running mate H. James Polos, right below him on the ballot, got 271. Republican Henry "Hank" Grabarz received 194 votes; running mate Carl Perlin got 185.

 But on the machine that malfunctioned, Grabarz and Pulomena got zero votes, compared with 27 for each of their running mates.

 The breakdown left Murray skeptical of all the results. "If it had failed later in the day, it would have been a disaster," he said.

 Andrew Wynham, national customer-support manager for Sequoia Pacific, confirmed the malfunction, saying that "a bank of [electronic] switches went bad." But he said such problems were rare.

 "The failure rate on these machines, especially on Election Day in use, is about 1 in 2,000," he said. But even if they do fail, he said, votes that have been cast are protected in electronic form in the machines and on a removable cartridge.

 "When one of our machines becomes disabled, you do not lose the vote," Wynham said.

 So what caused the zero-vote totals for the freeholder candidates?

 "It wasn't a matter of losing the votes," he said. The 65 people who used the malfunctioning machine "simply never did vote [for a second candidate] in those contests." Wynham said poll workers should have recognized the problem and stopped voters from using the machine.

 Murray said the lack of a paper trail made it impossible to prove that Grabarz and Pulomena lost votes, but he called Wynham's distinction hair-splitting. "There's no doubt about it in my mind," Murray said. "The machine failed."

Jeff Gelles' e-mail address is © 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.