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Palm Beach remains in the spotlight

The first sign that Palm Beach County was involved in another chaotic election mess occurred more than a week ago when ballots vanished.

There is still no winner in a closely contested race. County circuit court candidates Richard Wennet and William Abramson are heading to court, and Palm Beach County is back in the national spotlight for its voting woes.

"Is it the technology? Is it human error? What is it?" asked Mark Hoch, political director for the local GOP. "Otherwise, we can't be confident in the election process."

While elections officials and canvassing board members sort out what went wrong after the Aug. 26 primary, experts point to three factors that have contributed to the fiasco:

• A rush to implement state-mandated paper ballots during a busy presidential election year.

• Leadership of the elections office.

• The fact that no election is perfect.

"We're still digging ourselves out of the 2000 election hole, and every time we have an event like this it places us back in the hole or a little closer to the hole," Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning said.

Fallout from the 2000 election is what led to paper ballots being used on Aug. 26, the third voting method in eight years for Palm Beach County.

First, elected officials embraced touch screen voting as a way to avoid the confusion blamed on the punch-card/butterfly ballots of the chaotic 2000 election.

Then, U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Delray Beach, persuaded Gov. Charlie Crist and the legislature to ban touch screen machines so voters would cast paper ballots in this year's all-important presidential contest.

The timing was tight.

Palm Beach County voters used Sequoia touch screen machines in the January presidential primary and March municipal elections. Three months later, West Palm Beach voters in a special city commission election were marking paper ballots in a new Sequoia voting system.

The quick turnaround showed. Nearly 700 votes were temporarily uncounted after the June municipal election because elections workers weren't aware of a new software feature in the vote tabulation system.

"It was extremely challenging to make the transition" from touch screens to optical scanning of paper ballots in just three months, Elections Supervisor Arthur Anderson said.

The errors in the Wennet-Abramson recount also can be tracked to time requirements: The state insisted the election be certified quickly, but because of the new machines no one knew how long the recount would take.

"We were scared," said canvassing board member and County Commissioner Mary McCarty. "We didn't have to do it that fast, but we didn't know that."

The recount was completed at 1 a.m. a week ago Sunday, and bleary-eyed election officials headed home even though they knew the numbers didn't add up. Two days went by with no attempt to find more than 3,500 missing ballots before the 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline to certify the votes to the state.

Anderson said he didn't call employees back on Sunday or Labor Day because he thought they had worked hard enough. But on Tuesday they ran out of time. The flawed election results were sent to Tallahassee.

A worried Browning arrived Wednesday to assess the problem. The former Pasco County elections supervisor gently questioned why so much time passed before an investigation was launched.

When the election crunch hits, he said, breaks are simply not possible.

"I keep telling supervisors, we're not working eight-hour days," Browning said. "We're working 24-hour days."

Even if the county finds the missing ballots, there is more work to do, he said.

"The bigger issue is why did it happen?" Browning said. "Dr. Anderson will need to look at that as we approach the general election."

Anderson, who lost his bid for re-election in the primary, will remain in office until mid January.

During the recount, election workers who weren't necessarily computer-savvy entered the ballots into the machines. McCarty acknowledges there were problems.

"We don't believe anyone stole (the missing ballots), but I believe they might have gotten mixed up, maybe some boxes were mixed up. The machine recount was going really fast, all the machines were going, guys pulling boxes off the shelf, putting boxes back on the shelf. I just don't know what happened.

"One thing's for sure: 3,000 ballots didn't walk out of one precinct. We have different ballot counts in many precincts in the county. There's something in the system that needs to be fixed."

Phil Foster, a Sequoia Voting Systems executive, said proper checks and balances weren't in place to track the ballots.

"Just what I've seen today, it's quite confusing," he said.

Sequoia sent a crew late last week to re-create the election in hopes of figuring out what went wrong.

McCarty said it will take weeks to unravel.

"We will get to the bottom of this," she said. "And then find out what people to point fingers at and whose fault it was."

Some insist that a close look at any election will reveal flaws.

Tallahassee attorney Barry Richard, who was the lead attorney for Bush-Cheney in the 2000 presidential legal fight, wasn't surprised that problems developed during the recount. "Elections are a messy business," he said.

Doug Jones, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa who has reviewed problem elections throughout the country, said a small variation in the results of a recount is not unusual.

"But 3 percent?" he said. "That's bad."

County Judge Barry Cohen, chairman of the canvassing board, said he has second-guessed himself countless times.

Cohen said there were no numbers on the documents he signed to certify the judicial race on Tuesday. County Commissioner Addie Greene said she didn't notice whether vote totals were listed.

"Was I a flower on the wall? Should I have taken a more assertive role?" Cohen said of the questions he has asked himself. "In some respects, the people with the least knowledge about how to conduct an election is the canvassing board."

He declined to say whether Anderson should have sounded the alarm.

Browning is expected to return to Palm Beach County to sit down with Anderson and ensure that the November presidential election goes smoothly.

For now, it's another dark chapter in Palm Beach County's attempt to get the votes right.

"I decided whatever system (Palm Beach County) buys next time, I'm not buying it," joked Kay Clem, elections supervisor for Indian River County, the only other county in the state with Sequoia equipment. "I feel bad for them, it's tough. I can't imagine dealing with all those paper ballots. It must be a nightmare."

Palm Beach remains in the spotlight 09/07/08 [Last modified: Sunday, September 7, 2008 9:20pm]

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