Errors reported in vote count
BY WAYNE GREENE World Senior Writer
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
4/18/12 at 8:15 AM
OKLAHOMA CITY - Two voters in the disputed House District 71 election appear to have had their preferences counted twice because of human errors at separate precincts, state and local election officials said.
Meanwhile, two other ballots that apparently were counted by election machines - but somehow were never transferred to the Tulsa County Election Board for safekeeping - are part of a growing legal controversy that could decide the ultimate winner in the April 3 contest between Republican Katie Henke and Democrat Dan Arthrell.
On Tuesday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court stopped any further action on the election by the Tulsa County Election Board, the state Election Board or Tulsa County District Court. The high court scheduled the dispute for oral arguments before a referee next Wednesday.
On election night, Arthrell won by three votes, but Henke asked for a recount. When sealed boxes of ballots from the vote were opened last week for the recount, election officials found four fewer ballots than the machines reported.
The recount resulted in a one-vote margin for Henke, who was certified the winner by the county Election Board. But county officials subsequently found two ballots for Arthrell in election equipment, enough to swing the margin back to him.
It appears that human error by election volunteers resulted in single votes in two precincts accidentally being counted twice, state Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax confirmed Tuesday.
The vote was one of the first times a new generation of state election machines was used. It appears that on two occasions, voters had their ballots rejected by the election machines, probably because of a paper jam, Ziriax said. Although the machines apparently counted the ballots and their votes, they didn't retain them, he said.
Precinct volunteers should have taken the ballots from the voters and inserted them in a slot in the back of the machines so that they could have been retained. Instead, it appears that the precinct volunteers destroyed the ballots and issued new ones to the voters, who remarked the ballots and inserted them into the machines, which counted and retained them.
That would have been the right thing to do with the previous voting machines, but with the new machines it inadvertently resulted in the voters' preferences being counted twice, Ziriax said.
That explanation is satisfying because it accurately accounts for the number of ballots issued to voters, the number of ballots counted by the machines and the number of ballots retained by the machines, he said.
"There's a certain logic to it," Ziriax said of the explanation. "That's our working theory at this point."
Greg Bledsoe, an attorney for Arthrell, said he accepts that explanation for two of the four "missing" Arthrell votes in the recount.
But that makes the two other votes - the two ballots that were found in equipment days after the election - all the more essential to Arthrell's case.
At Arthrell's request, the state Election Board has confirmed that unique coded numbers on the ballots show that they were legitimate ballots that were issued to voters on Election Day and counted by the election machines, Bledsoe said.
"It's beyond doubt that the Election Board knows, and now the world knows, that there were two ballots not included in the recount, and I don't think you can have a real recount unless you count all the ballots," Bledsoe said.
"The truth is Dan Arthrell won by one vote. That's the truth, but whether that can be made to happen is the $64,000 question."
Robert Sartin, a lawyer for Henke, said he isn't completely convinced of the double-voting theory and rejects the idea that the two stray ballots should be included.
The double-voting explanation doesn't completely jibe with versions he was offered by election officials, he said.
He questioned why election officials didn't discuss the issue at a ballot security hearing before the recount but offered the theory only after the number of retained ballots didn't add up.
Meanwhile, two groups have been allowed to intervene in the Supreme Court case.
One group of four voters argues that their votes are in danger of being diluted or not counted at all if the two stray ballots aren't included in the final tally.
The League of Women Voters of Metropolitan Tulsa will argue in a brief that the two stray ballots should be counted, league President Heather Hope-Hernandez said.
"Our point of view is that every vote must be counted," she said.
Wayne Greene 918-581-8308
Katie Henke and Dan Arthrell: The Oklahoma Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments before a referee next Wednesday in the House District 71 race. Arthrell won the initial count, and a hand recount gave the decision to Henke, but two ballots were found later in voting machines.