Problem ‘Ender Cards’ create election headache for Sitka House race

Challenger Dr. Richard Wein (l.) and three-term incumbent Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. The outcome of their race isn’t definitive, as six of fourteen precincts have not been able to report their results due to a technical error. (KCAW image)

The outcome of Sitka’s House District is in question following a technical failure with a key element of the voting machines. The error was widespread across Southeast.

Listen now

As a result, tallies from Sitka, Craig, Kake, Klawock and Throne Bay have not been calculated for the HD35 race, which squares incumbent Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins against Republican Dr. Richard Wein. As of 5 a.m. today, with eight of fourteen precincts reporting including Petersburg, Kreiss-Tomkins leads Wein by approximately 300 votes.

House District 35 is a picture straight from a Southeast postcard — it includes historic Sitka, picturesque Petersburg and parts of wooded Prince of Wales Island. But the experience of some of these rural precincts on Election Day was a bit of nightmare.

Kassi Mackie is the city clerk in Craig, on Prince of Wales Island.

“What happened was, at the time that the polls closed, our machine would not take the Ender Card,” Mackie told KCAW over the phone.

The “Ender Card” is basically a piece of cardstock. Poll workers are supposed to feed the card into optical scanners to tally votes.

“[The card] basically tells the machine, ‘We’re done voting. You can tally the results.’ And that card that the state had provided us wouldn’t run through the machine. We tried multiple times, for about an hour,” Mackie said.

An error message kept popping up. Craig poll workers weren’t alone in their frustration. Both of Sitka’s precincts and the communities of Klawock, Kake and Thorne Bay also ran into problems.

As of Wednesday afternoon, six of 14 precincts in District 35 haven’t been tallied by state elections officials. Similar breakdowns occurred in Prince of Wales communities in District 36 and in Haines, which is in District 33. But unlike District 35, those errors weren’t enough to leave the outcome of the entire race in doubt.

So, what happened?

Laurie Wilson is the state’s Region 1 elections supervisor and she has a theory. She’s examined the Ender Cards closely and found that the marks printed on some of the older cardstock are crooked. As a result, the cards couldn’t be read by the optical scanners.

“[The Ender Cards] weren’t able to be read through the Accu-Vote unit to end the election,” Wilson said.

It was a bit of a bust for the election workers.

“Yeah. Because our workers did such a great job yesterday and everybody had such a great turnout,” Wilson said. “Of course when you get to that point you want to upload the results. But we’ll get them.”

There’s a backup protocol. The machine’s memory cards have been couriered to Juneau as air cargo, but Sitka’s won’t be delivered until nearly 24 hours after the polls closed.

“As soon as we get the memory cards, we will upload those results and post them to our website,” Wilson said.

She added that the Sitka results could be posted by late tonight or early Thursday morning.

Only then will there be clarity in the race between Democratic incumbent Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins and Republican challenger Dr. Richard Wein. The incumbent is up by about 300 votes, but he’s not popping any corks yet.

“Obviously, there’s still a number of precincts out,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “Both candidates are from Sitka so, I think Sitka is a big question mark too. But all equal, the numbers are really promising and we’re excited and grateful for that.”

Wein did not return calls on Wednesday afternoon.

Elections officials are blaming Southeast’s poll headaches on faulty cards – which caused problems at a race in suburban Chicago earlier this year – rather than faulty machines. Still, Alaska is working on replacing to its machines, some of which are 20 years old. And the good news is there’s likely federal grant money for new equipment in time for the 2020 general election.

Voter turnout across District 35 was very high. Precinct 1 and 2 in Sitka saw 1,309 and 1,316 ballots cast, respectively, along with 1,383 absentee ballots received to date. That means Sitka’s total ballots cast exceeds 4,000 with more absentee ballots still in the mail. Kake’s total as of this story was approximately 190.