Malfunction postpones vote certification

Published 12:54 am Wednesday, August 15, 2007

NATCHEZ — A week of ballot counting and waiting ended in a shouting match in the courthouse halls and a call to the sheriff’s department Tuesday evening.

Computer problems — or, more specifically, a memory card malfunction — meant the machine could not tally the final ballot counts Tuesday night.

After the Democratic committee hand-counted all ballots that needed it, absentee, affidavit and emergency ballots were scanned into a machine. The machine then put the information on a memory card.

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But when the election commission put the memory card into a machine that would add all the ballot types, the card looked blank.

When the situation was announced, tensions boiled over. Democratic Executive Committee member Beverly Merrill and Natchez resident Eva Dunkley started shouting at each other, exchanging insults.

Prior to that, justice court candidate Patricia Dunmore asked if more could be done Tuesday night.

“We’ve been trying to get this done for a week,” Dunmore asked. “Have you considered counting these by hand?”

Democratic Executive Committee Vice President Audrey Seale said that was not an option Tuesday night.

“What we have already done is but a fraction of those (800 absentee ballots),” Seale said. “I am not about to count those. I am going home.”

Some candidates were concerned about where the ballots would be stored, but it was determined they should be kept locked in the holding cell on the second floor.

The Democratic Party finished counting and verifying affidavit and absentee ballots Tuesday. The only step left was to add those and combine them with Election Day results.

The computer wouldn’t read a memory card on which scanned ballot data was stored, Election Commission Chairman Larry Gardner said.

“(The machine) was communicating with the card and then it stopped,” Gardner said.

A similar memory card problem arose when the voting machines were put through a test-run before the election, Gardner said.

“We couldn’t get (one memory card) to test,” Gardner said. “We felt it was probably a bad card, replaced it with another, and the new one passed.”

Technicians will be called out and, with any luck, they will have results today.

“It won’t take any time once we get a memory card that works,” Gardner said.

In the noise Tuesday, Justice Court Judge Charlie Vess called the sheriff’s department, and the crowd dispersed.

“I am a warden of the peace,” Vess said. “We’re all a little stressed out.”

A candidate perched on the possibility of a runoff, Vess said the delay meant another day he didn’t know whether or not to campaign.

“I’m sitting on ordering 5,000 campaign cards,” Vess said. “I’m within a half-point of not having a runoff, and it makes it a little more stressful.”

District 3 supervisor incumbent Thomas “Boo” Campbell, who also faces the possibility of a runoff, was at the courthouse Tuesday.

“I basically have mellowed out,” Campbell said. “I was pretty upset earlier, but I’ve mellowed out. Whenever they’re through, they’re through.”

Campbell said he had prepared mentally but not physically for a runoff.

Campbell said he understood about computer problems.

“Those things happen,” he said. “Often, computers break down when you’re in a crunch.”

Ben Hillyer contributed to this article.