Miscount in DeKalb race caused by voting computer programming errors

Recount will rely on backup paper ballots
DeKalb County commission candidates, from left, Marshall Orson, Lauren Alexander and Michelle Long Spears.

Credit: special

Credit: special

DeKalb County commission candidates, from left, Marshall Orson, Lauren Alexander and Michelle Long Spears.

A programming mistake caused an inaccurate vote count in a DeKalb County Commission race, election officials said Thursday night.

A recount will begin Saturday morning, when county election workers will re-scan all paper ballots from that commission district’s 40 precincts.

The error resulted in zero election day votes for Michelle Long Spears in all but seven precincts. Spears is currently in third place, outside of a runoff, but the recount could change the outcome. No other races were affected.

The problem arose from programming changes to voting equipment to remove a candidate from the ballot after he withdrew from the race for DeKalb Commission District 2, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Paper ballots printed from Georgia’s voting touchscreens will ensure accurate results, state Elections Director Blake Evans said.

“Georgia’s election system works and is secure,” Evans said. “DeKalb’s elections team is setting an example for the rest of the state of how to properly audit and review results before certification.”

The recount, which will be open to the public, will scan each paper ballot on a central scanner at the DeKalb elections office starting at 9 a.m. Saturday. The recount will become the results certified by the DeKalb elections board next week.

Hundreds of votes for Spears may not have been initially counted. Voter turnout in the district, which includes Brookhaven, Decatur and Druid Hills, was half as high as a neighboring commission district in southwest DeKalb.

“Our staff not only followed the proper procedures in advance but responded with urgency when this error came to light,” DeKalb Election Board Chairwoman Dele Lowman Smith said. “DeKalb County voters can take courage in the multiple checks and balances built into the voting process that should give them confidence in the outcome of this vote.”

A series of programming changes to voting touchscreens and scanners contributed to the erroneous count, according to the secretary of state’s office.

First, election officials adjusted settings to show three candidates in the commission race instead of four after Donald Broussard withdrew his candidacy.

Then, election officials discovered that voting equipment in five precincts hadn’t been updated after redistricting this year to reflect they were now within that commission district.

Next, the secretary of state’s Center for Election Systems tried to fix a problem in which a Republican Party ballot question wasn’t appearing correctly on touchscreens.

But the state’s attempt to correct the ballot question introduced a discrepancy between the five redistricted precincts and the rest of the commission district.

As a result, most ballot scanners on election day were programmed to expect votes for four candidates in the race when there were only three displayed on ballots, an inconsistency that prevented votes for Spears from being counted.

Georgia uses a voting system that combines voting touchscreens with printed-out paper ballots, which can be used to help check electronic results during recounts or audits. The state spent over $138 million to purchase voting equipment from Dominion Voting Systems in 2019.

Going into the recount, Marshall Orson and Lauren Alexander were in first and second place, putting them in a position to advance to a June 21 runoff. However, the recount could put Spears in contention.