Florida county probes misplaced ballots

In its first countywide election since Florida replaced most voting machines with paper-based optical scanning systems earlier this year, Palm Beach County is undergoing a massive recount to ensure vote totals add up properly.

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In its first countywide election since Florida replaced most voting machines with paper-based optical scanning systems earlier this year, Palm Beach County is undergoing a massive recount to ensure vote totals add up properly.

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.

That's when the recount found only 98,775 ballots to tally up, with 3,748 ballots not added into the results.

And with that, Palm Beach County, which was the scene of ballot and tallying controversies in the infamous 2000 presidential election and other recent elections, was again making headlines in the local newspapers.

Robert Weiner, an administrative aide to Arthur Anderson, who is the county's supervisor of elections, said today that the discrepancy is probably the result of boxes of ballots that weren't reprocessed as part of the recount, but that county officials are working to find the source of the problem.

After the automatic recount turned up the discrepancy, a labour-intensive manual hand recount was begun and is expected to be completed today, Weiner said.

When that is finished, the recounted paper ballots will be run through optical scanning machines again to get counts that can be matched to the manual recount numbers, he said. Under state election laws, the recounts must be completed by this weekend.

So far, the manual recount has found about 2,700 votes that weren't added to the initial automatic recount totals, he said. "For some reason, they were not added into the recount. We're not missing anything."

Election workers have been working in shifts around the clock to complete the manual recount, Weiner said. Anderson couldn't be reached for comment.

The number of recounted ballots is expected to add up to the 102,523 that the initial election returns reported as being cast during the primary, Weiner said.

Previously, the county 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 county is using 1,001 Insight Optical Scan Voting machines from Sequoia Voting Systems of Oakland, Calif., as well as several Optical Scan 400C high-speed central count scanner units where the ballot results are later audited in central election headquarters.

After the election was finished, the paper audit tape from each machine, as well as the paper ballots, the paper voter register and the machine's memory pack, which includes an electronic record of the machine's activities on an election day, were gathered and sealed in a special container to preserve the results, Weiner said. The containers were then transported under police escort to the tabulation center from districts across Palm Beach County, an area that is three times the size of the state of Rhode Island.

Almost 500 of those special containers would have come in on election night, causing election officials to suspect that the cause of the vote discrepancies may be simply a matter of some of the boxes not being opened and recounted, Weiner said.

"Something was not counted when it went into the recount," he said. "It was somewhere in our tabulation center warehouse where it appears they were not picked up."

Weiner said officials are "confident in the system" and are proceeding with the recounts to find the errors.

An Aug. 5 pre-election test of the optical scan system was completed successfully and showed that all systems were working as designed, he said.

Michelle Shafer, a spokeswoman for Sequoia, said there's "no indication that this is any type of machine problem" with the Insight voting machines.

The company sent several representatives to help the county as it continues its recount processes in the event assistance is needed, she said. "They're working on their administrative processes to try to account for everything," she said of county election officials.

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