Judge agrees state system in '04 election was flawed

Alaska ordered to pay Democratic Party for attorney fees in case

Posted: Sunday, December 23, 2007

ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Democratic Party has concluded it is impossible to tell whether the state correctly counted votes in the 2004 general election.

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A Superior Court judge agreed in a recent order directing the state to pay $14,000 to the Democratic Party for attorney fees. The Democrats sued for the 2004 records and received a copy of the state's electronic vote file last year.

The party never got accurate vote totals broken down by state House district, said Kay Brown, spokeswoman for the Alaska Democratic Party.

"We were never able to resolve what happened in 2004," Brown said. "We still don't know."

In the recent court order, Judge Stephanie Joannides wrote, "the system, as it existed prior to this litigation, failed to provide sufficient means of confirming the accuracy of the results."

The state Division of Elections said the vote count in 2004 was accurate. But division officials say the results were reported to the public in confusing ways.

For example, early votes for some races and ballot measures were not reported by House district, but by each of the state's four election regions. The total of early votes then showed up for every House district, inflating the actual number of votes many times over.

That's why in the U.S. Senate race, Sen. Lisa Murkowski was credited with 226,992 votes in a district-by-district total, but the count in the statewide summary was just 149,446, according to the Democrats.

Murkowski, a Republican, beat former Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, in a tightly contested race. According to the statewide official count, Knowles got 139,878 votes.

Election officials say each vote was counted only once, not multiple times.

"We've contended all along those votes were accurately counted. It's the reporting that caused confusion for people," said Shelly Growden, election systems manager.

The reliability and security of voting machines have been under question for years around the nation. Evaluations in Florida and California earlier this year found serious security weaknesses, including in systems similar to Alaska's.

That prompted Alaska Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell to seek a study, according to Growden. The elections division contracted with University of Alaska researchers to study whether the Diebold machines are vulnerable to hackers and other security breaches.

Growden said that after the 2004 election, state officials recognized the problem and changed their reporting practices.

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