OREM — A programming mistake caused punch-card reading machines in Utah County to not count 33,000 straight-party votes cast on Nov. 2.

The machines added up the total number of ballots but didn't forward votes to the candidate columns.

"The initial counter didn't carry the straight-party votes into the individual races," said Neil Peterson, director of information systems for Utah County.

The error initially was brought to the attention of State Elections Director Amy Nacarrato by the Deseret Morning News, which first reported the abnormal totals on Nov. 4. At the time, the unofficial computer tally showed that 144,423 Utah County residents cast ballots, but that only 110,143 voted in the presidential race.

Under-votes are normal since many voters choose only to vote in some, but not all, races. But they are rarely as pronounced in a presidential race as appeared to be the case before the recount in Utah County.

"It didn't make sense because almost everybody votes for president," Utah County Clerk/Auditor Kim Jackson said Saturday.

The day after the election, Nacarrato speculated that Utah County voters might have been making a statement they were unhappy with President Bush without voting for Sen. John Kerry.

Instead, after Utah County officials re-ran the punch cards Wednesday, the results showed 145,769 ballots were cast in Utah County with 143,797 including a presidential vote. President Bush still won 86 percent, but Kerry edged past 11.5 percent, up from 11 percent.

Utah County Democratic Party Chairman Vaughn Cook was incredulous when he learned about the 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."

In the end, the recount did not change the outcome of any of the races in the conservative county where 83 percent of the 50,992 who chose the straight-party option voted the Republican ticket.

"There was no conspiracy theory," Peterson said. "If anything, when we corrected the error, it made the winner's spread bigger in nearly every case."

The mystery behind the under-vote further caught county officials' attention after a member of the Personal Choice Party called to ask why about 1,900 people had voted a straight-party ballot for Presidential Choice Party but only about 70 votes were listed for that party's presidential ticket.

It turned out only one character was wrong in the programming code.

"It was a simple problem, but a little tricky to find," Peterson said. "The readers worked fine, everything worked like it was supposed to. It was a setup mistake by our programming team that sets up the election."

Ironically, the Personal Choice Party picked up just a few presidential votes in the recount. In that case, voters were the ones who may have made a mistake.

"We think what happened is that when people opened the ballot book, the first thing they saw was the straight-party choice," Peterson said. "The last party listed was Personal Choice. We think some people might have thought, no, I don't want to vote straight party, I want to vote what I want, and then they checked personal choice."

The computer system does count votes if someone punches a straight-party ticket on the first page but then goes on to punch various parties on the following pages. It simply counts any unpunched races under the straight-party option.

For example, if someone chose the Republican straight-party option but then voted for the Democratic nominee for governor, the computer assumes that the person meant to vote for the Democrat in that one race and Republican in all the rest.

Though the outcomes remained the same, both winners and losers learned they had thousands more supporters.

For example, in the governor's race, winner Jon Huntsman Jr. added nearly 30,000 votes while Scott Matheson added almost 5,000. Chris Cannon picked up 25,000 to Democrat Beau Babka's 4,355 added votes in the 3rd District Congressional race.

The biggest difference was found in the 2nd District Congressional race. Republican challenger John Swallow improved his win over incumbent Democrat Jim Matheson in Utah County from 54-44 to 62-36 by picking up an extra 5,817 votes to Matheson's additional 825. But Matheson still easily won re-election overall.

Jackson said none of the votes were ever lost.

"The votes were always accounted for," he said, "it was just how they were presented."

The incorrect tally was never official. Utah County is scheduled to hold its official canvass on Monday, and Jackson expects officials will then be able to certify the results.

The corrected figures are available online at www.co.utah.ut.us/dept/clerkaud/elections/electrslts/2004_gen/


Contributing: Associated Press

E-mail: twalch@desnews.com