Computer snafu causes long night for Johnson County Election Office and 14 hour delay tallying final result

Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker checked in at the Sylvester Powell Community Center polling site in Mission Election Day morning.
Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker checked in at the Sylvester Powell Community Center polling site in Mission Election Day morning.

Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker had a great game plan for Election Night, but a massive voter turnout combined with a still-mysterious computer glitch delayed results being released until early Wednesday afternoon, 14 hours behind schedule.

“This entire election has had one interesting twist after another,” he said. “Everything about this election, it’s like, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen this before.'”

It was late Wednesday afternoon when Metsker was reached to explain what happened. At that point, he’d been without sleep for more than 33 hours. His Election Day had begun at 3:30 a.m.

During previous elections, the Johnson County Election Office usually had released a preliminary count at about 7:45 p.m. and then reported the final unofficial tally at around 9:50 p.m., in time for the 10 p.m. newscasts.

Metsker thought this year he’d add a little intrigue. He wanted to release the preliminary results at around 7:45 p.m. and then provide 45 minute updates with the final unofficial tally going out at about 11 p.m.

But he hadn’t counted on his 85-person office being deluged with thousands and thousands of mail-in ballots being delivered Monday and Tuesday. Each one had to be personally examined for any tears or coffee stains or random scribblings that would make it unreadable by the optical scanner.

The plan had been to have all those mail-in ballots fed into the computer system before the actual voting was completed Tuesday. But then, in the middle of the process, an entire batch of 2,100 scanned ballots just “disappeared” from the computer file.

“We knew something strange had happened and we tried to figure out how to recover them,” Metsker said.

Staffers scrambled to try to figure out what went wrong. In the meantime, the clock was ticking to the closing of the polls on Election Day and another mega round of votes arriving.

“Minutes became half hours and half hours became two hours,” he said. “It was frustrating and we were already under the gun, already late.”

The first tally of advanced ballot votes did hit the Commission website some time after 8 p.m., but was followed by virtual silence from the Election Office. At election gatherings all around the county, anxious candidates and supporters kept checking their smartphones for updates. Nada.

“We were already behind and then election hour came and we were still trying to complete ballots,” Metsker said.

Finally, at about 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, another round of partial results was posted with 33 percent of the vote counted. The next was at 4:41 a.m. with 63 percent, then at 6 a.m., 92 percent. The unofficial final tally wasn’t posted until 1:20 p.m. Wednesday.

So much for the idea of building a little Election Night drama. By Wednesday afternoon, most people had moved on.

Metsker understands people’s frustration, but observed that while it was slow, his office didn’t lose any ballots and the outcome of races had not changed overnight after the first preliminary results.

“We will be doing a complete examination and investigation into how this happened and what we can do to make sure it never happens again,” Metsker said.