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Past voting gaffes put Palm Beach County in spotlight

If there is a case study for what could go wrong in Florida on Election Day, it might well be Palm Beach County's bungled handling of voting results in the Aug. 26 primary.

A staff accustomed to administering touch-screen machines was confronted with a new dynamic — lots and lots of paper to process in a short time. The statewide conversion to optical scan technology threw the elections office in Florida's third-biggest county into chaos.

Several boxes containing about 3,400 ballots were misplaced and not counted. A recount in a tight judicial race uncovered the discrepancy. And like the 2000 post-election meltdown, Palm Beach was once again an emblem of what could go wrong in Florida in a closely contested election.

An assistant county administrator, Brad Merriman, has been deputized to take over the elections office following concerns by Palm Beach officials about the ability of elections supervisor Arthur Anderson to handle his duties.

Anderson announced after the primary that he is battling cancer. Many observed before then that he had been increasingly disengaged.

By nearly every account, Merriman has stabilized the office. He and a team of 25 county employees recently accounted for all but about 12 of the missing primary ballots, and he is earning high praise. "He basically imposed order on chaos in a very short period of time. It was incredible," said Beth Rawlins, a Pinellas County political consultant who is working for a Palm Beach candidate.

But many fear the task is so large that Merriman won't be able to fix everything. They wonder how Palm Beach will be able to process an estimated 650,000 two-page ballots on Nov. 4 when it couldn't handle 102,000 one-page ballots on Aug. 26.

"That's plenty of ballots to screw up the state results should Palm Beach prove dysfunctional," said Dan McCrea, president of the Florida Voters Foundation.

The potential implications are immense in a state that once again is a key battleground in a closely contested presidential race, this time between John McCain and Barack Obama.

"He's extremely capable," Palm Beach County Commissioner Robert J. Kanjian said of Merriman. "The problem is he just got there and he can't change years' worth of endemic issues in such a short period of time."

The chance for error in an election is high. Voter registration roles must be managed. Ballots must be individually tailored to hundreds of precincts. Volunteers must be trained to put in 12-hour shifts at the polls, manage crowds, distribute ballots, give instructions and use technology. Finally, results must be transmitted or driven to election headquarters.

Add new technology and an election recount, and the chances for trouble go up. Palm Beach was one of 15 Florida counties — including Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco — that switched this year from touch-screen voting machines to an optical scan system in which voters mark their choices on paper ballots. Scanners count ballots one-by-one in precinct polling places and in early voting centers, and a message comes up on the screen when errors are made, giving voters a second chance to get it right.

High-speed machines at the county tabulation center count absentee ballots.

By most accounts in Palm Beach, things went relatively well at the polls on Aug. 26. The problem occurred when a recount in a judicial race revealed lax procedures in the county's tabulation center.

A lack of proper controls "can cripple the recount process, causing confusion," Merriman wrote in an audit report. "This was the first countywide election with the new voting system and, as such, staff had no experience conducting a recount using this system," he concluded, adding that the process is "labor intensive and relies on the accuracy and efficiency of human beings."

Rawlins, the Pinellas consultant, said she saw the confusion election night at the Palm Beach tabulation center.

When she asked the staff how many votes had been counted and where they were from, she said the answers kept changing. She saw ballots spit out of scanners, miss collection boxes and hit the floor. When staffers would pick them up, she saw them place ballots in the wrong piles, she said.

"I saw confusion," Rawlins said. "The overall impression was not one of a well-oiled machine."

Merriman has instituted several changes, including improved procedures for keeping track of ballots, more oversight and improved poll worker training.

"Our mantra is to treat every piece of paper as if we're going to have a recount, and we're going to pray that we don't have one," he said.

That means "treating ballots like evidence, which is what they are," he said. It also means every ballot will go through a "strict chain of custody" procedure.

What Merriman fears most is a scenario requiring a recount in more than one race. The system and state law require that one recount be completed before a second one can begin.

"We're not sure how that would happen given the time constraints," he said.

Merriman said the elections office gets a bad rap that isn't deserved. But he remains sober about the limitations of Florida's new paper ballot system.

"The more humans touch paper, the more potential you have for problems, and that's just the reality," he said. "Since this is a new system, we're learning more as we go. … Each day we learn more."

Past voting gaffes put Palm Beach County in spotlight 10/19/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 20, 2008 2:41pm]

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