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33,000 ballots lost in shuffle

Published November 13, 2004 12:40 am

Utah County votes fall through cracks in initial tally; race outcomes stay, but scale of error raises concerns
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2004, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Voters in Utah County had more than a one in five chance that their ballots did not get counted in the initial, unofficial tally from Election Day.

A programming glitch in the punch-card counter dropped 33,000 ballots from the totals - all of them straight-party ballots. That was more than 22 percent of the 145,769 ballots cast in the Republican stronghold.

"The card readers were fine; it was just the way it was programmed initially," Utah County elections coordinator Kristen Swensen said Friday. "It was just off by one letter."

The ballots were recounted Wednesday and the 33,000 missing votes were distributed to the candidates for whom they were cast. Despite the large amount of votes involved, the goof - and subsequent fix - did not change the outcome in any race, Swensen said.

Still, Utah County Democratic Party Chairman Vaughn Cook was incredulous Friday when he learned about the ballot blunder.

"Thirty-three thousand votes?" Cook asked. "That's something we'll have to pay attention to as the Democratic Party . . . strives to create an environment where there is more political balance in Utah County. Subsequent elections could be a lot tighter, and 33,000 votes would be much more significant to us."

As it is, the new vote tally further underscores the GOP's dominance in Utah County.

The recount means that when the official canvass is made Monday in Utah County, President Bush will have vacuumed up 123,752 votes in the state's second most populous county instead of the 95,039 initially reported. Democratic nominee John Kerry, meantime, picked up 16,641 votes - up nearly 5,000 from the original tally.

In the governor's race, Republican Jon Huntsman Jr.'s total in the county swelled from 73,635 to 103,618, while Democrat Scott Matheson Jr.'s votes increased from 32,579 to 37,566.

Losing Republican congressional challenger John Swallow closed the gap against Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, in the 2nd Congressional District with the recount, but not nearly enough to make a difference. Swallow picked up an extra 5,817 votes in the recount to Matheson's additional 825 votes in Utah County. But Matheson beat Swallow by about 40,000 votes in the rest of his sprawling district, which includes just a sliver of Utah County.

In the 3rd Congressional District, the Utah County total for Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, jumped from 55,470 to 80,685 while Democratic challenger Beau Babka's numbers increased from 22,705 to 27,061.

Despite the election snafu, neither Republicans nor Democrats were ready to utter the "C-word."

"There was no conspiracy," Swensen said. "No one has to worry about that."

State Sen. President-elect John Valentine, R-Orem, concurred.

"The size of the number [missed] concerns me; the fact there is a number does not," he said. "In a race that was very close, such as the race in District 1 in Salt Lake, it could have had an impact if those 33,000 votes had been missed."

State Elections Director Amy Naccarato said Utah County's problem was brought to her attention the day after the election when someone noticed that the total votes in the presidential race from that county were 33,000 less than the total number of ballots cast.

That discrepancy - called the "undervote" - exists in every race because voters pick and choose their contests, leaving some blank.

But the magnitude of the Utah County vote was out of line with anything that normally would be expected, Naccarato said. She said no other county had anything approaching that scale of undervote.

The discrepancy did not escape the attention of Marian Monnahan, chairwoman of the Utah County Republican Party. Earlier this week, she phoned County Commissioner Steve White, who was attending the Utah Association of Counties meeting in St. George, and told him about the missing votes.

White asked her to sample a few precincts to see how widespread the undervote might be. Monnahan quickly looked at her own precinct and examined a few more in American Fork, Cedar Hills and elsewhere.

"The problem was the same everywhere," she said. "I'm just glad we found out before the county certified the bad results."

County commissioners are scheduled to certify the results Monday.

White said he hopes to receive a more detailed explanation of the cause for the glitch at the meeting.

dharrie@sltrib.com

meddington@sltrib.com