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Michael Dickerson's Nine Lives 

Surely someone can do better than this

Among life's enduring mysteries, there are many that confound me.

The creation of the universe, the origins of life on our planet and Nicole Richie's celebrity status all rank high on my list of enigmas. But the one that baffles me most is elections director Michael Dickerson's ongoing employment by the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections.

Nobody says it publicly, of course, but there's a permanent asterisk in many political junkies' minds around here that sometimes slips into their conversations. They say things like "I still don't understand how Dan Ramirez won a seat on the county commission, since he got beaten so badly before and hardly campaigned this time. But then, who knows if they got the vote totals right?"

After years of mind-numbing snafus by Dickerson and his staff, I've come to think of local election results as a rough estimation of how voters voted.

A few days after the Nov. 7 election, Dickerson assured the Charlotte Observer that aside from a few glitches, the election had gone smoothly. Then, a week after the election, the public learned that 446 voters who didn't live in the district were accidentally given the wrong ballots in the state house race between Speaker Jim Black and challenger Hal Jordan.

It would be one thing if Dickerson and the folks at the board of elections had managed to figure this out on their own, but they didn't. An analyst at a think tank 130 miles away in Raleigh noticed it online when she was studying voter turnout across the state.

Black was eventually certified the winner, but no one will ever know the true vote total in that race because it was impossible to sort out which of the 446 voters voted for which candidate.

If they pulled this junk in Ohio or Florida, Dickerson and his sidekicks at the board of elections would have been hauled before a judge to explain themselves by now.

But perhaps politicians around here have just gotten used to elections in which candidates concede they've lost and go to bed only to wake up and find out that they've probably won but will have to wait another week to know for sure while Dickerson sorts through thousands of votes his office lost, found, double-counted or forgot to count (not provisional ballots -- actual votes).

After the 2004 election, campaign manager, Brian Francis noticed there were 6,000 more votes cast in early voting than there were voters. Were the dead voting here now, too? Again, Dickerson and his staff had missed a glaring error in their own numbers only to have someone who didn't work for them point it out.

As votes were recounted, election results flipped back and forth between candidates.

For days, Dickerson couldn't explain what had happened. Then he said elections workers must have downloaded some votes twice. A day later he said that there was a computer glitch and some votes had to be typed in by hand on election night and that he now believed that workers entered numbers wrong. A few days after that, according to an Observer article, Dickerson explained that election officials had tried to "speed things up" on election night by "disabling fail-safe procedures in their software" -- a truly confidence-inspiring revelation. So what really happened, he said, was that some votes from some precincts had been totaled two or three times and others not at all.

But the good news, Dickerson announced, was that they'd straightened things out. Board of elections staff had double-checked the votes and produced new, officially audited vote totals. So the problem was solved.

That is, until Francis quickly found an 860-vote "error" in the vote totals in the 9th District race. "What concerns me is that these are numbers that the director said he had a high level of certainty were correct," Francis told the Observer.

So this year, according to tradition, reporters wrapped up their stories about a Republican takeover of the board of county commissioners with 100 percent of precincts reporting and popular Democrat Parks Helms conceded his loss.

Then out of nowhere, well after midnight, came a handful of "late" precinct results. Some were from voting machines that were still turned on at or after 9 p.m. at the precincts while vote totals from elsewhere in the county rolled in on TV. (Dickerson says the machines weren't voted on much past 8 p.m.) In the dead of night, the new vote totals flipped the results of the race to a Democrat victory.

The results of this year's election are official now, and the machines have been packed up and put away, but Republican Party Chairman John Aneralla is still trading e-mails with Dickerson, trying to understand the sequence of events.

It's not that Aneralla thinks something sinister happened, or even that his party should have won. He's been very open about the difficulty Republican candidates will have winning here as Mecklenburg turns blue. It's just that he can't shake that feeling that something's wrong here, that the final vote totals might not be, well, accurate. I can't shake it either. Neither can several other candidates.

But because Democrats control the three-member board of elections by 2-to-1 and Democrats won, there won't be hearings and widespread investigations of what happened. That makes sense. No party in its right mind would publicly question anything about an election it won. So there won't be an official report about how the 446-vote snafu went down or a public review of the board's operating procedures to make sure it doesn't happen again.

I can only hope that Dickerson's next major foul-up goes the other way and appears to give the Republicans a win over the Democrats. Then, finally, we could turn the board of elections upside down and figure out what the heck is going on.

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