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Don't count on machines, either   (FL)

Joel Engelhardt    Palm Beach Post   25 September 2008

Now, we have evidence of machine error.

Last week, it looked as if the machines were doing fine and the big problem with recounting paper ballots in Palm Beach County could be blamed on human error. But the monthlong recount in a judicial race has shown that the machines aren't perfect, either. They messed up a tiny fraction - about one-tenth of 1 percent of the ballots.
Normally, election officials like to say, that wouldn't matter. Voters might argue about that. But the race between Judge Richard Wennet and challenger William Abramson was decided by a tiny fraction - less than one-tenth of 1 percent. Suddenly, imperfection matters.

Let's hope that history doesn't repeat itself in November and hand Florida a second presidential election decided by a tiny fraction - less than one-half of 1 percent. This recount has shown that the system couldn't stand the scrutiny of 67 recounts in 67 counties to determine the leader of the free world.

Why not? We knew that hand recounts can't avoid human mistakes. But machines? They are supposed to be perfect. Even with a paper trail, recounts rely on machines.

Under state law, machines are needed to separate valid votes for candidates from invalid votes. An invalid vote could be as simple as the voter skipping the race or as silly as voting for both candidates. Either way, those ballots don't count. It is those invalid ballots that state law singles out for recounting. The problem is finding them.

To sort out invalid ballots from properly cast ballots, the law relies on machines. All the ballots - in the Wennet-Abramson race, that meant 102,746; in November, it would mean 600,000 or more in Palm Beach County - are fed through high-speed counting machines. The machines are supposed to split the invalid ballots into a separate pile.

In this case, 11,592 ballots were singled out. But 156 others were not. The machine didn't count them as votes for Judge Wennet or Mr. Abramson. The machine said the ballots showed no voter intent. Rather than put them in a separate pile, as it did the 11,592 other invalid ballots, the machine put them back in with the valid ballots. Oops.

Generally, an error of 156 out of 102,745 wouldn't be a big deal. But Mr. Abramson led by 58 votes. Judge Wennet couldn't concede 156 uncounted ballots, since state law says humans must eyeball them. The problem facing election officials Tuesday was determining which 156 ballots hadn't been counted.

They knew from computer reports that the ballots came from 54 precincts. To find them, officials decided to run all the ballots from those precincts through machines again. They hoped that 156 would pop out. They got 160.

Sure enough, the extra four ballots turned out to be valid votes - two for each candidate. Of the remaining 156, three contained votes that couldn't be read by the machines, for reasons such as the candidate's name being circled.

There is also the possibility of more human error. Assistant Palm Beach County Administrator Brad Merriman, who led the recount, said that 95 percent of the mistakes were traced to the same counting team. But the machines also took ballots that to the human eye showed clear voter intent for a candidate and called them invalid. This happened more than 600 times in the Abramson-Wennet recount.

So, 600 times the machine segregated good ballots into the bad pile, and 156 times it segregated bad ballots into the good pile. When they say a paper trail means that every vote will count, what they mean is that every vote will count give or take a couple of hundred.

Now, it looks as if any candidate who loses a close race could challenge the results, force a recount and wait to see what errors arise. Machine recounts are the law in Florida, despite the paper trail. Palm Beach County's recount has peeled back the onion. Voters can be excused for crying.

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