Poor records organization at root of Palm Beach County recount woes

Optical scan system ruled out; better record-keeping recommended

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.

"The problem wasn't the cartridge," Merriman said. "It had the votes on it, but when it was read by the tabulating software, it wouldn't read. "But the staff reaction wasn't proper, so that's not a machine fault. What we know is that the fail-safe that's built in to catch that worked, but the procedure wasn't followed properly to fix it. I'm still not sure what happened" to cause the problems.

Several other cartridges also had problems, but they can't be reviewed and diagnosed until the judge allows the process to continue, Merriman said. "We think they may help with the answers," he said.

In a seven-page report to county officials yesterday, Merriman said his investigation recommends several changes to prevent similar problems in the future.

Merriman recommends that election officials improve labeling of ballot boxes when they are sent to the county elections office, and that they keep the records in numerical order for each precinct. A senior elections staff person should also be designated to monitor the chain of custody for all of the election ballots and records, and to provide better oversight, the report said.

Poll worker training should also be improved, as should the process of auditing of election results in each polling place, the report said. In addition, all voting machine cartridge data should be reviewed on a timely basis so that any error messages are found and investigated quickly.

Merriman said the recommendations can be implemented and followed in time to repair the processes for the Nov. 4 general election.

Palm Beach County has had more than its share of ballot and vote-counting controversies, dating back to the infamous 2000 presidential election when punch card ballots with a confusing design were used and many voters had difficulty filling them out. Voters had to punch out paper chads to make their selections, but some of the chads were only partially detached -- and went on to gain notoriety as the infamous "hanging chads" -- making it difficult for election officials to figure out which candidates the voters were selecting.

Today, the county is using 1,001 Insight Optical Scan Voting machines from Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. in Oakland, Calif., as well as several Optical Scan 400C high-speed central counting devices that can be used to audit voting results at election headquarters.

This was the county's first major use of the optical scan e-voting systems. Previously, it used direct recording electronic (DRE) touch-screen e-voting machines, Weiner said, but the machines were replaced under state laws enacted last year to move the state to mostly optical-scanning machines. The change to paper-based ballots was pushed by the state's governor and the legislature after DRE machines were found by many officials to lack adequate reliability and vote auditing systems.

The latest Palm Beach County election controversy also caught the attention of Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who last week sent a letter to Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning, asking Browning to help make sure the election problems are resolved before November.

In the letter, Wexler said he was expressing his "grave concerns and those of my constituents in South Florida regarding the preparedness of Palm Beach County for the November elections. With the spotlight of another close national election likely to fall once again on Florida, it is even more critical that every precinct in the state is adequately prepared for the election."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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