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Absentee ballots more likely to be counted, review finds

By Jeremy Milarsky
and Linda Kleindienst Staff Writers
South Florida Sun-Sentinel  October 15 2004

Broward County voters who cast their ballots the old-fashioned way on paper, through the mail were more likely to have their votes counted in the state's Senate primary contest Aug. 31, according to a new examination of voting records by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The lower undervote rates for absentee ballots may bolster the argument by some political groups that people who want their votes counted are better off passing up Florida's relatively new ATM-style voting machines.

In Tallahassee on Thursday, officials of Common Cause of Florida, a voter-advocacy group that has pushed for campaign-finance reform, released a three-month study showing its reasons for urging voters to cast paper absentee ballots on Nov. 2 as a way of making sure their votes count, including an earlier vote review conducted by the Sun-Sentinel after elections in March.

Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood downplayed the data from the last election, saying most, if not all, undervotes happen intentionally, not as a result of machinery problems.

"It's my choice as a voter, if I choose not to make a ion," Hood said Thursday. "I have voted both by absentee and early voting, and I, probably on a fairly routine basis, will undervote. I choose not to make a ion. That's my choice."

Alia Faraj, a spokeswoman for Hood, said people who ask for absentee ballots might be more likely to vote in more races and on more issues because they have the time to review the ballot before mailing it in.

"People ask for absentee ballots because they can actually spend more time reviewing the issues, researching the candidates. They have more time to spend," Faraj said.

The newspaper examined ballots cast only by voters who belong to one of the nation's two major political parties.

It used the same method for recording undervotes as that used by the Florida Division of Elections every two years after general elections.

An undervote is one in which the voter casts a ballot, but no choice is recorded for any given race.

The study found that 1.4 percent of the total absentee ballots cast by major-party voters were undervotes in the Senate primary or flat-out rejected.

By comparison, 2.1 percent of ballots cast at the precinct on Election Day were undervotes, and 2.4 percent of major-party voters who cast ballots early at one of Snipes' office locations cast undervotes.

Included in the absentee undervotes are ballots cast by 207 voters who had their votes rejected by the Broward County Canvassing Board because the voter failed to follow state law in some way. For example, in the most common voter mistake, 133 voters did not sign their ballots before sending them into Snipes' office.

Another 13 voters forgot to enclose the ballot and sent Snipes an empty envelope. One of them was Priscilla Hawk, a community leader in Plantation and a poll worker.

"I don't know what happened to the ballot," Hawk said. "I didn't know I had any problem until two weeks after the election."

County officials rejected 23 ballots because the signature on the ballot form did not match the one on file with the elections office. For one voter, 92-year-old Lewis Zimbicki of Deerfield Beach, there was a reason for that. Since he registered to vote in Broward County in 1964, Zimbicki has suffered multiple strokes.

And while the retiree still has his mental faculties, he no longer has the motor skills to write his name, said his wife, Magdeline.

"He's just not going to bother voting anymore," she said.

Undervote figures in Palm Beach County were not immediately available Thursday.

In Tallahassee, the Common Cause admonition to vote by absentee was particularly directed at voters in the 15 counties that use the electronic voting machines, including Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade.

"There is ample evidence that the machines can fail," said Ben Wilcox, executive director of Florida Common Cause. "It's the undervotes that are the concern."

Common Cause's study entitled "Déjà vu All Over Again?" cited these key issues:

A run-off election for Town Council in Wellington on March 26, 2002, revealed that 72 ballots cast electronically were recorded as blank in a race in which the losing candidate lost by only four votes.

During the November 2002 general election, when Gov. Jeb Bush defeated challenger Bill McBride, there were a total of about 34,000 undervotes.

Detailed records of Miami-Dade's first election using touch-screen voting machines were lost after several computer crashes in May and November of 2003.

During a special election for Florida House District 91, 134 ballots were invalidated as undervotes. The election for the House seat that takes in parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties was won by 12 votes.

A Sun-Sentinel study that found the percentage of undervotes during the March Democratic presidential primary was eight times greater in counties using touch-screen machines than in those counties using optical scan paper ballots.

"There is a possibility the election will be tainted. I think it's a strong possibility," said Wilcox, who lays much of the blame at Hood's feet for decisions made by her office, including a refusal to order paper trails for the touch-screen machines.

"Both political parties are jockeying for the best political position. Florida is in control of the Republicans, and that gives the Republican Party the advantage," he added.

Hood rejected accusations that her department has not done everything possible to insure a smooth election.

"We have seen successes are far as elections delivered, and we expect it to continue in the future," she said. "I find it very curious that all of a sudden, at the 11th hour, there are questions being raised about the integrity of the process and the integrity of our supervisors of elections. It was not questioned three months ago or a year ago or when the reforms were passed by the Legislature [in 2001]."

Mitch Ceasar, chairman of the Broward Democratic Party, said one result of the concerns has been high numbers of people who have already asked for absentee ballots for the Nov. 2 election.

"I have heard grave concerns among the people I've spoken with," Ceasar said. "I think the proof in that is, look at the absentee ballot requests."

In Broward County, 90,759 people had requested absentee ballots for the Nov. 2 presidential election by Thursday afternoon.

More than 8,100 had already voted by absentee. If all of those people actually vote by mail, the number of people opting to vote with a paper ballot by mail could more than quadruple: 22,733 voters cast ballots by mail for the Aug. 31 primary.

In Palm Beach County, more than 67,000 voters had requested absentee ballots as of the end of last week, Elections Supervisor Theresa LePore said.

Early voting in Palm Beach and Broward counties begins Oct. 18.

Voters can request paper absentees now by calling Snipes' office at 954-357-7055 or LePore's office at 561-656-6200.

As in Broward, all ballots must be received by 7 p.m. Election Day.

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