MicroVote exec assumes blame for election gaffe

Gary B. Gray • May 8, 2014 at 8:59 PM

The person responsible for a human foible that turned the 6th Commission District results upside down during Tuesday’s Republican primary has claimed full responsibility and absolved the Washington County Election Commission from any wrongdoing.

Indianapolis-based MicroVote General Corp. President Jim Ries confirmed in a news release Thursday that an employee error resulted in an inaccurate vote total posted on the Washington County Election Commission website.

“Official voting tallies were unaffected by this website posting error, which was unrelated to the official counting of ballots,” Ries said. “We have identified the reason that the website posting error occurred and are putting into place steps to insure that such an error does not occur in the future.”

The person directly responsible for the gaffe is Bill Whitehead, MicroVote’s Tennessee project manager. Whitehead emailed Washington County Administrator of Elections Maybell Stewart on Wednesday night to say an exact explanation of what happened was forthcoming.

“Not to imply that your local media would misinterpret any information, but we are always cautiously guarded about what the press will receive, as in many cases they are spin doctors and we want to protect you and everyone involved in this process from a misinterpretation,” Whitehead told Stewart.

Whitehead said he understood the mistake put the Election Commission in a difficult position and profusely apologized.

“You know that this is on me, and that you did your job and performed your responsibilities to the highest level,” he said. “But as you also know now, this is 100 percent complete human error. My human error. Both the Infinity Software and the Election Management Software behaved properly and as they should have.”

While the tabs, or paper printouts from voting machines, posted Tuesday on walls indicated Republican challenger Tom Foster’s success, the Election Commission website showed incumbent Commissioner Mark Ferguson besting the field.

That’s when the calls started pouring in.

It seems the candidates’ names were not in alphabetical order, as they should have been. That resulted in the wrong numbers being credited. Maybell Stewart contacted the MicroVote technician, and he reset the lineup — or so he thought.

It turns out he forgot to click “save,” meaning the tally still showed Ferguson topping the field. In fact, Ferguson received only about 11 percent of the vote — far short of making the top three who now move on to the Aug. 7 county general election.

Ferguson, thinking he had won, gave the Johnson City Press an interview, touting his honesty and blasting town of Jonesborough Mayor Kelly Wolfe’s comments in an earlier article. Wolfe contributed $5,000 to Washington County Citizens for Better Government, which singled out Ferguson as being “Embarrassing” in a flyer distributed throughout the county.

Ferguson called Wolfe’s tactics “deceitful.”

When the mistake was corrected and the fat lady sang, so to speak, Ferguson did not return calls.

In the end, Foster, newcomer Tom Krieger and incumbent Joe Grandy made the cut; incumbents Ferguson and Gearld Sparks failed to do so by healthy margins.

It’s fair to say Stewart has had a long week. She and her staff did not leave the Election Commission office on the third floor of the county courthouse in Jonesborough until 2 a.m. Wednesday.

About seven hours later, she met with Foster and the Press to explain what had happened. Foster, who said he had not slept, was patient and amiable, but wanted to hear it for himself.

Stewart, who also was very settled considering the circumstances, explained what had happened and told Foster, “You are the winner.”

There has been some speculation over the last two days that state officials would be arriving from Nashville to investigate the matter, but Stewart dispelled the rumor. She said she spoke with Tennessee Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins, and he expressed no concern.

“I talked with the state coordinator of elections — not to ask them for anything, but to make sure they were aware of what had happened,” Stewart said Thursday. “I was told there was nor reason for them to get involved and that no one from the state would be coming here.”

Follow Gary B. Gray on Twitter at @ggrayjcpress. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/garybgrayjcp.

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