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Officials struggle to clear up confusion about local election  (FL)

Mark Hollis     South Florida Sun-Sentinel     02 September 2008

Palm Beach County officials are struggling to clear up confusion about another local election, this time involving the first widespread use of new optical scan voting machines.

Supervisor of Elections Arthur Anderson doesn't have answers to what went wrong in last Tuesday's election concerning a hotly contested judicial race, according to top aides.

"He (Anderson) has everybody investigating it," Kathy Adams, a spokesman for Anderson, said Tuesday. "No stone is being left unturned to find out what the reason is for this."

At issue is the race between Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Richard Wennet and challenger William Abramson.

At about 1 a.m. Sunday, a two-day recount of ballots ended with Wennet beating Abramson by 60 votes. But officials are struggling to determine why the recount produced results for only 87,800 votes when election night results showed 90,700 ballots were cast.

Abramson, who has said he is likely to file a lawsuit challenging the results, is expected to hold a press conference later Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the state Division of Elections is scheduled to finalize the elections results Wednesday through a certification process in Tallahassee that involves Gov. Charlie Crist, two members of the Florida Cabinet, and the director of Florida's Division of Elections.

There was a machine recount over the weekend of all the ballots cast in the race, and then a separate hand recount of roughly 11,000 ballots that were kicked out by vote-counting machines as either so-called "undervotes" and "overvotes."

Undervotes involve ballots in which it appears voters failed to vote at all, while overvotes are ballots in which a voters marks more than one candidate.

Florida law provides county elections officials with little time to conduct recounts. The hand recount, for instance, needed to be finalized by 5 p.m. Monday.

As for the disparity of roughly 2,900 votes on election night and what was counted after the recount process ended, Adams said the elections office is conducting a thorough review.

"You can't make an assumption (on what happened)," she said. "You don't know. Everybody is on it, and Tallahassee (the Department of State, Division of Elections) is aware of it."

State elections officials are monitoring the situation, but the burden of determining what happened rests mainly on Anderson.

"We are aware (of the dispute over the number of ballots cast) and are trying to glean as much information as we can," said Jennifer Krell Davis, a spokesperson for the Division of Elections. "However, at this point, we are in the position of having to follow the (law) and it is (Anderson's office) that is charged with administering elections in (Palm Beach County)."

Adams said Anderson's staff is "going through to see if any specific precincts showed a difference" in ballots cast, they are making sure there were no ballots left in any of the lock boxes (at a county vote-tabulation center near West Palm Beach)," and discussing various possibilities with the election-equipment manufacturer.

Anderson and his leadership team are having telephone conversations, Adams said, with officials from Sequoia Voting Systems, the voting equipment manufacturer that sold the county's the optical-scan system that debuted countywide last week and which is expected to be in use in the November general election.

"This is the new equipment," Adams said. "Everybody wants to be sure that we know precisely what caused it (the disparity in the number of ballots counted on election night and the number reported after the recount)."

Anderson, who has been supervisor of elections in Palm Beach County since 1994, lost his own attempt at reelection last week in a three-way nonpartisan primary. Challengers Susan Bucher and Bob Margolis will face one another in a runoff Nov. 4.

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