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The tightest council race in the city hung in the balance for hours on election night after a volunteer poll worker left a voting machine in his broken-down car instead of taking it in to be processed.

It took city election staff two hours to track down the machine that ultimately rescued the night for veteran Councillor Case Ootes of Ward 29 (Toronto-Danforth).

City spokesman Brad Ross said the deputy returning officer was supposed to take the fax-machine-sized device to the city's East York election headquarters to confirm the results of the tight race in the ward after the polls closed.

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But his car broke down, and the man had it towed to a garage with the voting machine inside, Mr. Ross said. The man never phoned election officials, and decided to retrieve the machine yesterday.

Election officials unable to publicly confirm that Mr. Ootes had fended off a challenge from Diane Alexopoulos by just 20 votes, finally tracked the man down by phone at his home later Monday night.

But he was reluctant to help.

"He hemmed and hawed, and said, 'I'll bring it in tomorrow.' We said, 'Ah, you'll bring it in tonight,' " Mr. Ross said, adding that if the man had refused to co-operate, officials would have called police.

Elections staff eventually met the man at the garage and retrieved the machine. Mr. Ross said the machines have seals to prevent tampering.

"I think it would be safe to say that his services will not be required next election," Mr. Ross said, adding that he could not identify the man involved.

The defeat of Mr. Ootes would have been considered a major upset for one of the leaders of council's right wing. Mr. Ootes was deputy mayor under Mel Lastman, a frequent critic of Mayor David Miller and a central figure in the fight over the controversial decision not to renew former Toronto police chief Julian Fantino's contract.

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Yesterday, Ms. Alexopoulos said that the whole thing "seemed a little odd" and that her campaign team was "exploring a recount and other challenges," but that no decision had been made.

Under election rules, the city does an automatic recount with a tie vote. In other cases, a challenger must ask the city clerk for a recount. Mr. Ross said clerk Ulli Watkiss has ruled out granting any such requests this year, but the new city council could agree to order a second look. As a last resort, a challenger can go to Provincial Court for redress.

Since amalgamation in 1998, the city has conducted five recounts, with no change at all in the numbers. Monday night's second-closest race was in Scarborough East, where former councillor Ron Moeser -- defeated in 2003 -- won back his seat by a 61-vote margin over Diana Hall.

The city said Monday's voter turnout was 41.1 per cent, which at first glance appears to be a slight increase over 2003's 38.3 per cent. But the 2006 figure is expected to fall when the final revised numbers are released tomorrow.

Turnout is measured as the percentage of people on the voters list who show up to vote. But the voter's list shrunk by more than 200,000 names this year after the agency that compiles it deemed many residents ineligible because Canadian citizenship could not be confirmed. That may have artificially inflated the turnout percentage.

Many voters had their names added to the list on voting day, and, when that new list is used to calculate the figure, city officials expect the percentage to sink slightly.

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Voting by Internet has been proposed as a possible fix for low municipal elections turnout. Voting tallies in Markham seemed to support that view, as online voting, available as part of advance polls, drew 10,639 ballots this year, up from 7,210 in 2003.

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