Tangled Web: Wellington, FL Drama Highlights Complexity of Technology, Value of Audits


[Image courtesy of level1diet]

An extraordinary story is emerging from an election from the March 13 municipal election in Wellington located in Florida’s Palm Beach County.

Election Night returns indicated that two hotly-contested council elections had been resolved in favor of two candidates, but then a routine post-election audit suggested that their opponents had actually won due to errors in tabulating the county’s optical scan ballots. Following a court-ordered manual recount, the revised totals were confirmed.

As if that weren’t extraordinary enough, a battle is now underway between the county clerk and her vendor about who was responsible for the error. The clerk is blaming the vendor, saying that the error – which appears to have been caused by a “synchronization” problem between vote-counting and tabulation machines – is something she and her staff have never seen before and thus could never have been expected to catch, let alone fix.

The vendor, on the other hand, is claiming their product “acted as designed” and saying that while spotting the error is “more difficult than it could be” it was still the election office’s responsibility to do so.

The clerk is adamant that the errors were not “difficult” but “impossible” to detect, saying she and her staff had never seen them before – and indeed had no idea how to access the necessary components of their system until after the problem was identified.

The lessons here are plentiful, but these are my top 2:

1. Voting technology has become so complex – and the activities of vendors so vital to its operation – that any election official that doesn’t have at least one person on staff who can oversee the work of the vendor and its products is playing with fire;

2. Post-election audits are crucial in the effort to guarantee the integrity of the election process. Florida officials have conceded that the errors that occurred in Wellington likely wouldn’t have been prevented by pre-election testing and certification. Absent the audit, the wrong candidates would have won. Auditing, however, is the landslide winner.

If nothing else, Wellington’s mess will prompt other jurisdictions around Florida – and around the nation – to examine their own systems for similar errors. I’d be willing to bet that lots of election techs are boning up on”synchronization” right now.

4 Comments on "Tangled Web: Wellington, FL Drama Highlights Complexity of Technology, Value of Audits"

  1. You are quite right that companies should examine their own systems for similar errors to prevent incidents that can be very dangerous. Your post is a good reminder for all of them.


  2. Wisconsin’s recall elections in May and June will not have any audits. The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board does not think these elections are important enough to have audits. Only November elections have manual audits.

  3. From details at http://www.bradblog.com/?p=9221
    It appears this was a ballot order problem.
    “Wellington and 15 other municipalities held elections on March 13. In Wellington, the ballot was set up with the mayor’s race first, the Seat 1 council race second and the Seat 4 council race third.
    “Unbeknownst to elections officials, the vote totals for the mayor’s race ended up being reported and later certified as the results of the Seat 1 race. The Seat 1 vote totals were certified as the Seat 4 results and the Seat 4 vote totals were certified as the mayoral results.”
    A rigourous pre-election logic and accuracy test would likely have discovered the problem, but how many election officials are experts at designing these tests, and how many states have rules about it?

  4. Hi All,…Here’s a possible fix.

    Look out for erroneous and/or fraudulent vote counts. Errors can occur in hand
    count system or in machine count systems.

    Make sure the election laws for vote count favors the voter’s “Full Voting Rights”.

    Almost every state in our fine country seem to favor the incumbents, the election
    officials, the news media,…etc. But the voters are told cast your vote and then go
    home and be quiet…for we know what we are doing…you can (must, shall) trust us…
    we know how to count votes…etc.

    The vote count system laws that favor “Full Voting Rights” consist of:

    1. Open to public observation a Closing Count at the polls at end of election day.
    a) Count by machine or hand.
    b) Fill out closing reports (and seal machines, if used).
    c) All early ballots and absentee ballots be counted at the Closing Count,
    ballots/votes SHALL NOT be counted before election day.

    2. Open to public observation a Verification Count after the Closing process by
    election workers before they go home on election day/night.
    a) Hand count every vote on every ballot including voters intent.
    b) If Verification Count equals Closing Count…the closing count becomes
    the official count for that polling place.
    c) If the Verification Count does not equal the Closing count…the verification
    count becomes the official count for that polling place.
    d) All errors found in the Verification v/s Closing count shall be recorded in
    the Verification Report. (Verification workers need not seek cause of error).

    3. Open to public observation a Recount process.
    a) Cost of recount to be included in the election budget.
    b) Any voter or candidate shall be able to request recount.
    c) A refundable fee scheme may be charged to the recount requesters.
    d) And the fee could be based on a 1%, 2%, 3%,,,etc basis.
    e) Recount by hand including voters intent.

    Thanks for your time and considerations…we can implement the above vote
    count process,

    Frank Henry
    Cottonwood, Arizona
    Tel: 928-649-0249
    e-mail: fmhenry4@netzero.com

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