I confess to a bit of queasiness about the soundness of Florida's election system even before our president and governor made their false and sometimes outlandish allegations about rampant election fraud in Florida and "unethical liberals" trying to steal the U.S. Senate race.
First, my daughter in Vermont called me fretting that she still had not received the mail ballot she requested to vote in her first election. We had to ask the elections office to overnight one.
Then, on the Saturday before Election, I showed up at a Pinellas elections office to turn in my mail ballot to vote in person instead. A pleasant woman behind a desk instructed me to sign the digital screen reader and then told me it did not match the signature on file for me. It looked to me exactly like my normal, sloppy signature. She studied it further and finally said it was okay because I had my drivers license.
I filled out my ballot, waited briefly in line, and slid the first page into the machine. MACHINE JAM.
The queue behind me grew as several pleasant women scurried about trying to figure out who had a key to the machine to retrieve the jammed ballot.
I fed the ballot in again. MACHINE JAM. More scurrying. I tried a third time. MACHINE JAM.
So I abandoned the pleasant women again prying open the machine and asked another pleasant lady behind a desk for a new ballot. This prompted a fair amount of discussion among more pleasant ladies about the proper procedure. Finally, ballot completed for a second time, the machine accepted it.
Not a big deal, though it highlighted the sketchy way we exercise our fundamental right to participate in our democracy.
But it was a big deal a few days later when Florida produced some virtually tied, high profile election tallies.
The entire world saw how buggy and amateurish our election system remains 18 years after the butterfly ballot election — south Florida elections officials clueless and/or unlawful about how many uncounted ballots remained, how ballots should be secured, and how recounts should Â handled.
"There's an unfamiliarity not only with the process of a recount, but also what the rules are," lamented Tampa attorney Ken Jones, who as a Republican elections lawyer worked on the 2000 recount in Palm Beach County as well as the 2008 recount of the Al Franken/Norm Coleman U.S. Senate race in Minnesota.
"But after the punch card ballots of 2000, I feel a lot better today about the technology that's in place," Jones said.
Recounts give us a peek inside the electoral sausage factory, and even with improved technology the picture is alarming:
Multiple counties reported different results after conducting their machine recounts; More than 800 votes vanished without clear explanation in Hillsborough's machine recount; Broward misplaced more than 2,000 ballots; Machines in Palm Beach overheated, forcing the county to recount 175,000 ballots; A machine in Duval failed to count 15,000 votes; Manatee had to recount 43,000 votes because a "simple mistake" in programming. Broward's ballot design apparently confused thousands of people who failed to vote for a U.S. Senate candidate; Bay county's elections chief generously and illegally allowed people to fax in and email votes; thousands of mail ballots were discarded because bureaucrats with no expertise did not think their signatures matched sufficiently.
"If it's any solace, the electoral process plays out the same every even year in November; We just don't happen to notice because statewide elections are only this close in Florida every fortnight," said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political scientist and expert on voting.
It's not any solace.
Most of Florid's elections supervisors are pros. But wouldn't we be better having our county commissioners appoint a real professional, rather than repeatedly electing former legislators with zero experience run our elections? County commissioners would also be more accountable for inadequate funding of elections offices.
Another part of our problem, hate to say, is that we rely so heavily to our kindly neighbors to conduct our elections. For maybe a couple hundred bucks, these virtual volunteers serve as the backbone of of Election Day voting.
Uncle Wilbur is a great bowler, but that doesn't mean he should run an election.
"You have to accept the fact that the people who staff and run these places are volunteers just doing their civic duty," Jones said. "If you want absolute perfection and a system that runs like a top, it's not this."
A system closer to perfection requires more money. For instance, one way to help prevent very rare cases or electoral fraud without disenfranchising thousands of voters would be to use biometric verification or fingerprints, face or signatures. If millions of people use it to open their iphones or access their bank accounts, why not for voting?
"In theory, eligible citizens should feel as confident about our votes being received, counted, and validated as when we vote by mail or in person, just like we do when we deposit a check in an ATM machine that it will end out in our bank account," Smith said.
"Of course, as good Americans, we want it on the cheap. "We expect our election supervisors to do their jobs with a fraction of the resources, technology, and staffing that financial service institutions have at their beck and call. "As a country, elected officials and taxpayers apparently aren't very interested in investing in our electoral system; as such, we get what we pay for."