Efforts to close out the Nov. 6 election took a turn Friday afternoon when election workers discovered that ballots from 1,178 voters had been scanned but not counted, according to Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey.
The problem, discovered during a routine check as part of the process of certifying the vote, nearly doubles the votes that remain to be tallied in an election that includes two races in the 17th District that remain too close to call.
As of Friday, Republican incumbent Don Benton was 96 votes ahead of Democrat Tim Probst in the 17th District Senate race. Meanwhile, 17th District House candidate Monica Stonier, a Democrat, led Republican Julie Olson by 100 votes.
With the addition of the 1,178 ballots, the total number of ballots to be counted before the race is certified is about 2,300, Kimsey said. He said he has spoken with the 17th District candidates or their representatives about the situation, and he has also briefed the chiefs of staff of both the Senate Republican and Democratic caucuses.
"Obviously, I think people are concerned," Kimsey said. "People are appropriately asking, 'Well, what happened?' But when we explain the situation, I think it's fair to say that most people have been satisfied with the explanation."
Here's the explanation: Kimsey says the county uses two computers to process ballots and tally votes. One computer scans the ballots and writes the data onto its hard drive and a memory card. The memory card is then taken to the second computer, which uses its own software to extract and tabulate the votes.
In this case, the 1,178 ballots were processed by the scanning computer on Election Day or earlier, but the data was never processed by the tally computer. Kimsey said the data was either never written onto the memory card, or the tally computer could not read the memory card when it was inserted.
The problem was discovered when officials compared the number of ballots tabulated and ballots expected to be tabulated with the number of affidavit envelopes processed and voter credits given after voter signatures were inspected, Kimsey said.
Elections officials will work to determine the exact problem and tabulate the ballots. Kimsey said the tally from the extra 1,178 ballots could be available as early as today -- or possibly on Monday.
"It's important to understand that these 1,178 ballots are from properly registered voters," Kimsey said. "Those are voters whose affidavits were proper, whose signatures were verified and voted the correct ballot. These were ballots that were inspected by our inspection board."
It is not known how many of the 1,178 ballots are from the 17th District. Of the 409 ballots counted Friday, 118 were from the 17th.
One of the additional challenges the elections department faces is counting more than 1,000 "My Vote" ballots, which voters printed from the secretary of state's website if they had difficulty accessing the standard ballot. Those ballots came into the elections office in generic envelopes. The ballots are the size of letter paper, which does not match the size of a standard ballot.
Elections officials spent much of Friday duplicating those "My Vote" ballots onto paper that would fit through their ballot scanning machine, Clark County Elections Supervisor Tim Likness said. That process comes with its own system of checks to make sure the ballots were duplicated properly.
There is no connection between the "My Vote" ballots and the 1,178 ballots scanned but not tallied, Kimsey said.
Officials will "definitely" be done counting the ballots they have on hand by Monday, Likness said.
Additionally, a couple hundred more military or overseas ballots could trickle in through the mail during the next several days. On Friday, elections officials received 67 additional ballots that way.
"We're still getting some hefty numbers in the mail" when compared with previous election years, Likness said. Ballots had to be postmarked by Nov. 6 to qualify.
The two 17th District legislative races are the closest in the state.
Probst had a 222-vote lead on election night. Benton gained a 65-vote lead on Tuesday and has maintained a small lead since then. On election night, Olson had a 78-vote lead over Stonier, but Stonier slightly pulled ahead of Olson a week ago.
Both 17th District legislative races could be headed for a manual recount, because elections officials are required to recount ballots in races that are closer than 2,000 votes and also closer than one half of a percentage point.
Benton has 50 percent of the vote while Probst has 49.82 percent of the vote. Stonier has 50.04 percent while Olson has 49.86 percent.
Rather than seek re-election to a third House term, Probst ran to unseat Benton. Stonier and Olson are vying for the House seat Probst is vacating.
If recounts are necessary, they would likely begin during the first week of December. Election results aren't certified until 21 days after an election, and the 17th District ballots must be separated from the rest of the county's ballots.
Likness said he did not know how long a recount would take.
County elections officials have received 194,231 ballots so far, meaning Clark County voter turnout is at 79.9 percent. About 2,000 of those ballots will not be tabulated due to lack of a signatures, late postmarks and a variety of other problems, Kimsey said.
The next report from the Clark County Elections Department will be released this afternoon.