State Audit Faults Officials, Vendor for Ballot Delays in St. Lucie County, FL


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Other Florida communities may have gotten more attention, but a new report from the Secretary of State finds serious fault with St. Lucie County’s election office after a series of management and technology failures created confusion in the aftermath of the 2012 election.

The nine-page “Election Observation Report” opens with this Summary:

When the St. Lucie County Supervisor of Elections office began uploading its votes on the night of November 6, 2012, Election Day, the supervisor’s office recognized a number of memory card issues had occurred during the early voting period from October 27, 2012, through November 3, 2012. Although the supervisor’s office had prepared for a first time multi-card ballot election, the office did not anticipate the complexity of technical malfunctions nor have a well-defined contingency plan in the event of such issues occurring.

Despite well-intentioned efforts, staff inexperience, and inadequate procedures compounded issues, resulting in additional technical and procedural errors. Due to an increased concern about the accuracy of the early voting tabulations, Secretary Detzner assigned observers. These observers determined that there were at least four separate incidences of memory card failures, a number of ballot scanning errors during retabulation and an early voting recount, missing logs for ballot accounting, and incomplete official results.

The immediate cause of the problems in St. Lucie – which delayed tabulation and prolonged the drama of a razor-thin and nationally-watched Congressional election between incumbent Allen West and Patrick Murphy – was a series of memory card failures involving the county’s Dominion AccuVote equipment. However, the report found that these problems were compounded by a series of management issues, most notably the failure of the county to scan early votes before Election Day as allowed by state law: “Florida counties can upload early voting results into their election management system at any time after early voting is closed, provided the results are not released to the public. It appears that the undue pressure of uploading early voting results on Election Day, rather than earlier as other counties did, compounded the impact of the memory card failures and resulted in additional procedural errors.” In the scramble to upload ballots on Election Night, several new errors arose: some ballots were scanned twice, while others were overlooked entirely.

In response to the problems observed in November, the report makes a series of recommendations for changes to procedure in the County:

• Establish review procedures and methods for multi-card ballots by coordinating with a large county that has experience with multi-card ballot elections.

• Establish a method of checks and balances of multi-card ballots to ensure an accurate
ballot count with accurate turnout by group (early voting, election day, absentee, etc.).
This method includes reconciliation of each group’s counted, spoiled, unread, and
duplicated ballots.

• Establish and implement a contingency plan in the event of technical procedural errors, failures, or oversight. The office should develop macroscopic remedial steps.

• Ensure tight controls are exercised in managing multi-card ballots including a means to confirm all uploads are complete before combining the ballots into storage boxes.

• Enhance or develop procedures to identify the duties, responsibilities, and authorizations for ballot movement, storage, traceability, and chain of custody.

• Upload the early voting results data into the election management system (i.e., GEMS for St. Lucie County) software before Election Day. The early voting results may be transmitted to GEMS for compilation of the returns after completion of the early voting
period, but obviously must not be released prior to the closing of the polls on Election Day. This will help to minimize undue pressure arising from other reporting requirements on Election Night. It will also provide additional lead time to address anomalies that may show up.

The report concludes, however, with a warning to the county’s vendor, Dominion Voting Systems: “This vendor needs to address the continuing failures with the AccuVote OS memory card. In particular, Dominion needs to have a plan in place that will give the Division of Elections and its customers (Supervisors of Elections) confidence in the memory cards and to provide that plan to Division of Elections as soon as possible. The plan should address the root cause, corrective action and a backup plan if the correction continues to have failures.”

In many ways, St. Lucie’s problems are a function of a lack of contingency planning; while the problems that befell the County in November 2012 may not have been the result of a natural disaster, the inability to recover from the contingency had a disproportionate impact on the office’s ability to respond. It’s often said that you can make your own good luck; in this case, it appears that with a little preparation it might have been possible for St. Lucie to avoid some (very) bad luck as well.

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