DeKalb’s recount in County Commission race heads into second day

DeKalb County Elections Executive Director Keisha Smith confirms the cards match the precinct machines before testing begins Saturday, May 28, 2022.  The DeKalb County Elections Office had to recount votes due to a programming error that apparently allocated votes incorrectly in the election reporting of a County Commission race. The recount will resume Sunday.  (Photo: Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Combined ShapeCaption
DeKalb County Elections Executive Director Keisha Smith confirms the cards match the precinct machines before testing begins Saturday, May 28, 2022. The DeKalb County Elections Office had to recount votes due to a programming error that apparently allocated votes incorrectly in the election reporting of a County Commission race. The recount will resume Sunday. (Photo: Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

County election officials return Sunday to review vote count after Tuesday’s programming error

Dozens of poll watchers, campaign supporters and concerned citizens showed up at the DeKalb County elections office Saturday morning expecting to observe officials recounting thousands of votes in a botched commission race.

Poll workers spent more than eight hours testing voting machines, reprogramming scanners and shuffling through ballots. But at the end of the day, they were no closer to clearing up the inaccurate vote count in the District 2 DeKalb County Commission race.

Elections officials suspended the machine recount after realizing they may still have inaccuracies in the meticulous process.

The second day of the the recount will begin at 10 a.m. Sunday. Pollsters will have to start over from scratch when they reconvene at the Voter Registration and Elections headquarters in Decatur, 4380 Memorial Drive, Suite 300.

Combined ShapeCaption
DeKalb County Elections Executive Director Keisha Smith (left) and Dele Lowman Smith (seated), chairwoman of the DeKalb County elections board, talk after hours of testing machines for a recount Saturday, May 28, 2022. (Photo: Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

DeKalb County Elections Executive Director Keisha Smith (left) and Dele Lowman Smith (seated), chairwoman of the DeKalb County elections board, talk after hours of testing machines for a recount Saturday, May 28, 2022.  (Photo: Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Combined ShapeCaption
DeKalb County Elections Executive Director Keisha Smith (left) and Dele Lowman Smith (seated), chairwoman of the DeKalb County elections board, talk after hours of testing machines for a recount Saturday, May 28, 2022. (Photo: Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Officials intend to follow up the machine recount by retallying the District 2 ballots by hand at a yet-to-be determined date and time.

The recount, which was open to the public, began at 9 a.m. Saturday. Two candidates were among the throng of poll watchers who gathered in the voter tabulation area to watch the recount.

There are 40 precincts in District 2, which covers Decatur, Brookhaven and portions of Atlanta in northwest DeKalb such as Druid Hills.

Lauren Alexander and Marshall Orson vied against Michelle Long Spears in the May 24 Democratic primary. Orson finished first and Alexander second in the unofficial results. But those results could change after the recount.

Yet as the day languished without any ballots being counted, the crowd slowly tapered off. The first cart filled with ballots to be counted wasn’t wheeled out until just before 4 p.m. Those were just advance voting ballots in five precincts that were redistricted this year. The remaining ballots hit the floor around 4:30 p.m. But elections officials stopped the proceedings just before 5:30, saying the count would be suspended until Sunday.

Shelley Momo, a senior assistant county attorney, later suggested there were discrepancies discovered during the recount that elections officials weren’t comfortable with.

“We need to be happy with the (logic and accuracy) results, so this will not be part of the recount,” she said. “Whatever commenced will have to be done over.”

Logic and accuracy testing is a state-mandated fail-safe step used to ensure that voting scanners accurately read the ballots and display the correct results. The testing is intended to confirm that the accurate results under all possible scenarios.

Erik Burton, DeKalb’s elections office spokesman. said officials stayed in constant contact with the Secretary of State’s office “at each step of the way” Saturday to confirm the testing.

“It’s unprecedent, it’s complicated. And I think that’s what gives us all a lot of hesitation and pause to get it right,” he said.

Observers urged elections officials to go to a hand recount.

“DeKalb has been dealt a bad hand,” said Jeanne Dufort, a longtime member of the Coalition for Good Governance, who was on hand Saturday at the behest of Spears.

“This is a mess that’s been handed to DeKalb essentially by the Secretary of State,” she said. “The effort it would take to check the configuration, do more programming and do a full logic and accuracy test to solve for it after the fact is not worth it when you can just sit and count the votes manually. Bypass the scanning reporting problems, just do them manually.”

An election day glitch caused an inaccurate vote count that prompted Dekalb’s elections board to call for the recount. DeKalb Super 6 County Commissioner Ted Terry said he was notified of irregularities in the vote tally and reported them to elections officials on election night.

Two nights later, election officials said a programming mistake caused an inaccurate vote count.

Poll workers were poised to re-scan thousands of paper ballots from the District 2 County Commission race on a central scanner at the elections office.

The error resulted in zero election day votes for Spears in all but seven of the district’s 40 precincts. She finished last in the three-person race with just over 3,000 votes, or 24% of the electorate, and is currently cast out of the June 21 runoff. Spears and her supporters worried hundreds of her votes weren’t counted correctly in the initial tabulations.

Some observers expect Spears to leapfrog her two opponents after the ballots are recounted.

Part of the confusion centered around Donald Broussard, who qualified to run in the race. He withdrew his candidacy April 12, after the county had started mailing out absentee ballots with his name appearing on them as a District 2 candidate, officials said. Voting touchscreens were re-programmed to remove Broussard from the ballots, according to the Secretary of State’s office. DeKalb officials believe a display error caused election day votes for Spears to mistakenly appear as votes for Broussard in the unofficial reports.

Dele Lowman Smith, DeKalb’s elections board chairwoman, said the ballots needed to be re-programmed at a second point in the process. That didn’t happen, and it resulted in the miscalculation in the election results, according to the chairwoman. She emphasized that part of the process was not the responsibility of any DeKalb County officials, but did not say who was at fault.

“There was a technical glitch that did not completely remove the candidate from the reporting system,” Lowman Smith said. “So when the votes were output, they were misaligned to the candidates, and one candidate appeared to receive no votes.”

Marilyn Mark, a Coalition for Good Governance activist, said one of the main issues is that the system is unnecessarily complex.

“The real problem here is the Secretary of State has programmed the machines wrong at least three times during this election. They programmed them wrong, they corrected wrong, they corrected the correction wrong …They’re just kind of trying to build an airplane on the fly.”

Officials will resume the recount effort at the election office at 10 a.m. Sunday.

The DeKalb elections board is slated to certify the recount as the official results during its meeting Tuesday.