TALLAHASSEE -- It’s a ballot recount in a tight presidential race that invites easy comparisons to the electoral crisis of 2000.
About 27,000 absentee ballots can’t be digitally scanned because of a recently discovered design flaw. Elections workers began Monday duplicating the markings from bad ballots to new ones so that the votes could be recorded, an effort that has led some to question the accuracy of results.
And it’s all happening in Palm Beach County.
“By now, questions can be asked about why these type of problems keep happening in this one county,” said Ed Foley, an Ohio Sate University law professor and expert on election law.
But Foley and other elections experts say that unlike the butterfly ballot and hanging chads of the infamous Bush-Gore voting 12 years ago, this year’s mishap with Palm Beach absentee ballots probably won’t sway an entire national election.
“There are no perfect elections and glitches happen,” Foley said. “In this case, they caught it in time and set up a pretty good review process that’s transparent and is probably the best one possible.”
Even Palm Beach County Republican Chairman Sid Dinerstein, no fan of Democratic Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher, said he didn’t expect the mistake to matter much on Election Day.
“It makes for a great story, but in terms of stuff that will make a difference, it won’t,” Dinerstein said. “The chance of this affecting any race that you care about is close to zero.”
Still, the sheer volume of ballots in question is hard to ignore, especially in a swing state like Florida that could decide the presidential race.
On Oct. 19, Bucher announced the recount. The vendor, Dominion Voting, had printed 60,000 absentee ballots that had no header signifying a different section for the merit retention races for justices on the Florida Supreme Court. So the ballot segues abruptly from a Port of Palm Beach candidate to the question of “Shall Justice R. Fred Lewis of the Supreme Court be retained in office?”
Though the mistake pertains to the missing transition to the merit retention portion of the ballot, Bucher has told the Palm Beach Post that it affects every election and referendum question. Bucher said she stopped 10,000 of the ballots from getting mailed. When a header was inserted, it shifted the placement of races. The scanner could still read about 25,000 of those ballots. But an estimated 27,000 couldn’t be read, forcing Bucher to conclude she had to duplicate them.
Not everyone agrees.
“Duplicating 27,000 ballots is not easy, it’s tedious,” said former Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who was also Pasco’s supervisor of elections for 26 years. “They’re going to need an army to do this. It going to take a very long time.”
On Monday, 10 teams of two poll workers began copying the bad ballots onto new absentee ballots in a process that was vetted and approved by Secretary of State Ken Detzner, a Republican, said his spokesman, Chris Cate.
One person on the team is a Republican, the other a Democrat. One member reads the markings on the bad ballot, which are then duplicated on the new ballot by the other member. When completed, the person who marked the new ballot reads back the results to the other team member to confirm it was filled out accurately. It takes about two minutes for each ballot, Cate said.
Three people observe the teams, a Republican, a Democrat and someone with no party affiliation. If observers have any complaints about the way a ballot is being duplicated by the teams, they raise their hand and explain their concerns to an elections worker. If the dispute cannot be resolved, the ballot is placed in an envelope to be reviewed later by the canvassing board.
Detzner had two observers from the Florida Division of Elections office watch on Monday, but both had returned by Thursday, Cate said.
“We went down there to make sure the process went smoothly and that it was transparent,” Cate said. “Things were moving along and we’re confident that these voters who are having their ballots duplicated will have their votes counted accurately.”
Cate said he expects all absentee ballots to be duplicated and tallied by Nov. 6. Once the polls close at 7 p.m., Bucher’s office has 45 minutes to report the absentee results. If they’re not done, Bucher’s office must provide the state with updates every 30 minutes until the counting is done.
Although it sounds complex, the process drew praise from elections experts.
“They do get kudos for transparency,” said Michael D. Martinez, a professor of political science at the University of Florida who has studied electoral behavior. “There’s always the potential for error, with any process that you come up with, but this one sounds really fair.”
And fairness matters more in a case like this than anything else, said Foley.
“As long as Democrats and Republicans and other members of the public can watch the process, then I think that’s an adequate level of transparency,” Foley said. “There’s no process out there that’s error prone. But having more eyeballs on the process, from both sides of the competition, you’ll significantly reduce the errors.”
Dinerstein said the problem with the absentee ballot highlights problems with how the office is administered under Bucher, who is not running for re-election this year. Although Bucher is blaming the vendor for the error, Dinerstein said she or her office approved the proofs that were printed and sent to voters.
But in the grand scheme of swaying the election, Dinerstein said he is worried about other issues.
“Palm Beach County does have an image to uphold,” he quipped. “But how many times can lightening strike?”
Tampa Bay Times staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report.