Shades Of 2000: Palm Beach County's Bad Ballots Mean Another Hand Count Election

Oct 11, 2012

A misprint on 60,000 absentee ballots means vote-counting in Palm Beach County will be sort of special again this year.

Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher said each of those ballots will have to be examined, the intent of each voter discerned, and the vote transferred to a properly printed ballot so it can be read by a tabulation scanner.

It’s not exactly 2000 all over again. Back then, we voted by perforating a ballot with a stylus and confusion resulted from "chads" that were not completely punched out. Now ballot choices are made with unambiguous pencil marks. Determining intent may be less of a challenge.

Bad Problem Got Worse

Before the scanning issue emerged with implications for every race in the Nov. 6 election, the bad ballots looked like they might only complicate merit retention for three Florida Supreme Court justices. They were printed in a way that obscured the place to vote for the three justices.

The timing was terrible for the justices seeking merit retention, which is usually a formality. Because Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince represent the liberal wing of the court, they're facing a campaign, well-funded by state Republicans and Koch brothers entities, to remove them from the bench.

But the discovery that the misprint also made the ballots impossible for the tabulation scanners to read made the issue even more urgent.

Tallahassee lawyer Barry Richard, who represents the justices' campaign, recorded a robocall that was dialed to the homes of Palm Beach County absentee voters. It told them how to find the justices on the ballot. Now, he says, he's not sure what else he can do.

"We have no reason to think the supervisor is not conscientiously trying to fix this," he said. But he wonders why she chose manual ballot duplication rather than reprogramming one of her scanners to read the misprinted ballots accurately.

Printer Gets The Blame

Ballot duplication is a tried-and-true method that involves two-person teams and an emphasis on quality control, Bucher said. It is frequently used to process votes from military voters who send faxed ballots that also can't be scanned. The absentee duplication process can begin 15 days before the election and the company that printed the bad ballots, Runbeck Election Services of Arizona, will pay for the work.

Bucher says the master file sent to Runbeck had a perfect absentee ballot on it, but it was somehow printed without the lines and titles that should have separated the judicial elections from adjacent county commission and port authority elections.

"We approved a ballot they didn't print," Bucher said. "We would have expected better from this vendor."