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Poor records organization at root of Palm Beach County recount woes

Optical scan system ruled out; better record-keeping recommended

By Todd R. Weiss
September 16, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Officials in Palm Beach County, Fla., say they've found the answer to the recent ballot recount discrepancies that have made headlines since the county's Aug. 26 primary election.

The problem isn't with the county's new optical scan e-voting system, said Brad Merriman, an assistant county administrator who is helping to investigate what happened.

Instead, he said, the reason the 102,523 paper ballots cast on election night have never been completely accounted for in subsequent recounts is that the hundreds of boxes of ballots were so disorganized in a warehouse that workers couldn't properly account for them as they were retallied.

Some 3,700 ballots were inadvertently excluded from earlier recounts because of the poor filing and organization, he said.

So far, "we have been able to somewhat definitively reconcile the entire vote count to within about 80 ballots," Merriman said of a 25-person team under his direction that pored over the ballots since last week.

A state circuit court judge has halted the process for now so he can review the case.

Once the investigation is permitted to continue, Merriman said he thinks the number of recounted ballots will be off by 12, but even that number may still be reconciled to zero as the process continues.

The problem turned up after the state's Aug. 26 primary election, when an apparent 17-vote difference between two candidates for a judicial seat triggered an automatic recount of the 102,523 ballots cast.

The dispute unfolded as county elections officials found that subsequent ballot recounts tallied between 98,775 to 101,000 paper ballots, leaving up to 3,700 ballots unaccounted for.

Last week, a county elections office spokesman said the problem appeared to be that elections workers had simply missed boxes of ballots as they conducted the recounts.

Merriman said the latest recount has reconciled most of the discrepancy, but he noted that his team can't finish the work until Judge Charles A. Francis of the 2nd Judicial Circuit lifts his order that halted the process.

"The bottom line is that we weren't able to go in and complete our forensic analysis of absolutely what happened because the judge ordered us to stop," he said. "If he lifts his order, we think we can finish and get the number [of extra ballots] to 12."

"They just didn't have an accurate, systematic way of counting everything in the building" on election night, Merriman said of the election workers. "There's been nothing that indicates there was any kind of machine error at all."

One problem that was discovered was a "read error" with a data cartridge used in one of the optical scanners that tally the paper ballots and their votes in each precinct, he said. The precinct staff improperly tried to manually override the read error and could have caused part of the ballot total discrepancy.

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