No Small Stuff (cont.): Palm Beach County’s Ballot SNAFU


[Image courtesy of Palm Beach Post]

“It hurts too much to laugh, but I’m too* big to cry.”

That quote, attributed to Abraham Lincoln, is surely how Palm Beach County’s Susan Bucher must be feeling this week after a ballot printing problem required thousands of ballots to be re-produced by hand:

While Democrat President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney were preparing on Monday to make their last pitches to the American people from Boca Raton, their attorneys were in a cavernous warehouse 30 miles to the north trying to make sure absentee ballots cast by an estimated 27,000 Palm Beach County voters are counted.

Under the din of machinery, nine two-member teams, composed of workers from a local temp agency, performed an unprecedented and decidedly low-tech procedure to make sure voters aren’t disenfranchised: They hand-copied votes from ballots that were sullied in the printing process to ones tabulation machines can read.

The problem stems from a bad batch of Palm Beach County absentee ballots produced by an out-of-state vendor which omitted a heading for key judicial retention races. The problem wasn’t caught until about 27,000 ballots had been mailed to voters. Once the ballots were fixed, the entire layout changed and the old ballots could no longer be read by counting machines – hence, the need to “re-make” by hand any of the incorrect ballots that were voted and returned.

Bucher insists that her office is not at fault:

“We did proofread it, they sent us a file and the file contained the accurate ballot. Unfortunately, they didn’t print that one … And we got a proof of the ballot, they just gave us the wrong proof,” she said.

It’s also true, however, that once the actual ballots were received from the vendor, no one checked the final ballots before mailing began.

The biggest issue for now is that candidates in several judicial retention races – including some hotly-contested state Supreme Court contests – are concerned that the printing error may have led voters to overlooked them and could affect the outcome. They raised those concerns during yesterday’s proceedings and were denied:

Representing three Florida Supreme Court justices from the ballot, present parties asked if flaws with missing headlines on the ballot may have confused voters who didn’t vote at all in that category.

Gary Dunkel, who was representing justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, presented a letter to Bucher that challenged the process.

Dunkel said, “We just wanted her to segregate those undervotes so that later they could be looked at if necessary.”

When approached by a group expressing the concern, Bucher said, “If they continue to object, they are providing frivolous objections and they will be excused.”

Bucher said the purpose of the copying was not to count ballots, but instead to make sure they would feed through machines.

“The law says that we are here to make exact duplicates, and so if somebody did not vote in that race, that’s not an objection, we can’t fill in the race if they didn’t vote for it.”

The original misprinted ballots will be set aside, however, in the event the retention races are close, those ballots will be used to determine if they were instrumental in the outcome.

This situation has got to be a nightmare for Palm Beach County’s Bucher – technically, the error was not not her office’s fault but her office had the last opportunity to catch the error before ballots were mailed to voters. I’m not sure what’s the remedy, but you can bet that Bucher and her staff will be thinking about it going forward – and will be getting lots of suggestions as well.

*I feel the need to confess that this word – ironically, in a post about proofreading – was initially misspelled.

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