[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.