In this year's election, Jennifer Strait wanted to avoid a repeat of 2006, when she was forced to cast a provisional ballot and never learned if it counted.
So she updated her address in September, and double-checked on it with a phone call to the El Paso County clerk and recorder's office in October. The woman who answered said it was fine and advised her to "raise hell" if anyone suggested otherwise.
To play it safe, Strait, 32, decided to vote early on one of the county's touch-screen Diebold voting machines. On Monday, a day off from her job as a bookseller, she visited the clerk's downtown office at Centennial Hall and took her place at one of the stations. Things went smoothly as she made her selections on page after page of the ballot.
She had a question when she reached the end about whether she had gotten to vote on every race, so she hit the "reject" button and went back to review her votes. She asked for help, and an election judge came over, reviewing with her the pages of her ballot before again reaching the final stage.
That's when things went from puzzling to troubling, Strait says. Though she still hadn't seen the race in question, the election judge started hitting buttons on the touch screen. When a message flashed saying her ballot would be cast if the "reject" button were hit again, Strait says, the judge hit that button.
"That man just cast my ballot for me!" she yelled.
She walked away to seek help from other election workers. As she explained what happened, she noticed the election judge was still at her machine, pressing buttons.
"Can you show me what was cast?" she asked the other workers. No, they explained, the printout is in a secure canister.
Higher-ups came over to reassure her, including a man she believes was John Gardner, information systems manager for the clerk's office and assistant chief deputy clerk. With Gardner standing by, she asked the election judge point-blank if he had changed any of her votes.
He threw up his arms, Strait says, and replied, "No, no, I wouldn't do that."
Strait left, pocketing the "I voted" sticker she was given on the way out, and felt increasingly troubled.
"Am I supposed to just have faith?" she asks.
County election manager Liz Olson says the election judge Strait encountered was on his first day, called in to help with growing crowds. Election judges shouldn't be touching a voting machine "unless a voter asks," Olson says, explaining that the judge in question was spoken to Monday evening and asked to "shadow" another judge Tuesday morning.
"There was a mistake that was made," Olson says.
Gardner, who had a controversial role testing the state's voting machines before returning to his old El Paso County job this year, did not respond to requests to talk about what happened to Strait.
The Independent recently reviewed e-mails sent by the clerk's office while investigating apparent lies Gardner told about having a bachelor's degree in architecture from Montana State University on multiple job applications and in 2006 court testimony. (The university has no record of him graduating, and both the Denver district attorney and the Colorado attorney general have been asked to investigate Gardner for possible perjury charges.)
In June, Gardner wrote to Terry Sholdt, the chief deputy clerk, about how judges should cancel a vote if the wrong ballot is mistakenly activated. He suggests it might be better to avoid using the "hidden 'cancel' button" so "voters won't wonder what other 'hidden' buttons might exist on the device."
Strait worries that after she left her screen to look for help, the election judge could have used a similar, hidden method to change her vote.
Brad Friedman, an election integrity advocate who writes about national voting problems at bradblog.com, says he's heard of other voters having problems like Strait's. Friedman says the uncertainty about how votes are recorded is one of the reasons he believes we've reached a point where we're holding "faith-based elections."
Isolated or not?
Olson says that through Monday, the seventh day of early voting, Strait's case is the only touch-screen problem she's heard about in the county. But nationally, Diebold is still getting attention for an admitted software flaw that can cause votes to be dropped when results are tabulated.
At a Monday afternoon forum, Olson and Sholdt answered a variety of questions about voting machines, ballot printing and expected turnout.
One woman told Olson afterward that the machines seem to make things unnecessarily complicated, suggesting it would be easier to go back to all paper ballots.
Procedures for the machines are complicated. Election workers in at least one polling place had trouble shutting down a touch screen machine in the August primary, forcing Gardner and his staff to formally close it down later in the evening.
With computers, the process of counting and tabulating votes is obviously different than it was in the old days with paper ballots. Friedman suggests there's a legitimate reason to wonder what happens with those computers.
"The problem is," he says, "you end up trusting in guys like John Gardner."
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