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Critics rip elections supervisor after miscount in West Palm Beach race  (FL)

Mark Hollis     South Florida Sun-Sentinel     28 June 2008

Palm Beach County elections officials said Friday they are investigating why they failed to quickly count more than 700 votes in a special election that marked the county's first experience with optical scanners.

A 707-vote disparity between an unofficial vote tally Tuesday and a final count two days later in a West Palm Beach City Commission race has spawned another wave of criticism and questions about Supervisor of Elections Arthur Anderson's ability to run an error-free election.

Unofficial results reported a few hours after the election showed 4,085 votes cast. The next day, a computerized audit signaled a problem three vote-counting machines apparently had collected votes that weren't counted.

On Wednesday, officials rechecked the three machines and re-ran their vote-counting "cartridges" through vote tabulating equipment. The recheck found the 707 additional votes, or 14 percent of the total cast, that had not been counted on election night.

By late Thursday, Anderson's office reported on its Web site a new and official tally of 4,792 votes cast in the low-turnout election.

The new votes didn't change the outcome, but critics of Anderson, including two of the candidates in Tuesday's election, complained on Friday about the supervisor's procedures, equipment and staffing. They said because of the county's national reputation for vote-counting problems, such as the 2000 presidential election, better efforts should have been taken to avoid such a discrepancy in unofficial and official results.

"What if those 700 votes had changed the outcome of the election? This is unacceptable," said Richard Pinsky, a consultant who ran winner Kimberly Mitchell's campaign. "This is not an election for school class president. We're talking about a dry run for the fall campaigns, the race for the president of the United States. We can't forget, Palm Beach County was ground zero for not getting it right."

Anderson faces re-election this fall. He was first asked about the discrepancy by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel early Friday. In his response, he said he was unaware of any discrepancy because he has been busy campaigning. Later Friday, after contacting managers in his office, he and a public relations adviser provided explanations.

Anderson and adviser Kathy Adams said that because no votes appear to have been lost and because "only three of 80 [scanner] cartridges" were involved, the public can be assured that the checks and balances of the vote-counting system worked as designed.

"This is very good. It shows how well these machines work," Adams said. "It alerts when there's an issue. And during an audit, it is picked up and everything is retabulated, and only then do [the results] become official."

Anderson said the incident highlights why the public should always maintain a degree of suspicion of unofficial election results.

"We know that those involved in campaigns and the media and the public want something they can look at [on election night] as a strong indicator [of results]," Anderson said. "But you can't always consider the first set of results. ... Everyone needs to take a reserve posture."

Rebecca Young, a challenger to Mitchell, called the episode "very troubling" and said she thinks to restore public confidence, there should be a recount using the paper ballots that voters marked on Tuesday.

Adams said Anderson has no plans for a paper ballot recount.

"Nothing was lost, all the votes were counted," Adams said. "I know it was a lot of votes, but it was just three cartridges, and we found them, and we've counted them."

Michelle Shaffer, a spokesman for the voting equipment manufacturer, reiterated the stance that the public can be confident that the optical scanners worked and votes were properly recorded and tabulated.

"It's much more important to get the vote counting done right than to get it done fast," Shaffer said.

Mark Hollis can be reached at mhollis@sun-sentinel.com or 561-228-5512.

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