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Palm Beach County starts counting election ballots by hand  (FL)

JANE MUSGRAVE   Palm Beach Post    04 September 2008

Teams of Palm Beach County workers this morning began counting thousands of ballots in hopes of accounting for all 102,523 that officials believe were cast in last week's election.

Shortly after midnight, county election staffers said they had found 2,700 of the 3,478 ballots that somehow disappeared between the Aug. 26 primary and a weekend recount.
At a 5 a.m. meeting, members of the county elections canvassing board agreed to call in more workers to begin counting every ballot that was cast in the election to assure all of the missing ballots had been found. The board is to meet again at 5 p.m. today.

If they are satisfied that the missing ballots have been recovered, it is likely they will order a second recount in the razor-thin race between Circuit Judge Richard Wennet and challenger William Abramson.

A weekend recount of the race threw the entire election into turmoil when officials discovered that they could only account for 99,045 of the 102,523 ballots that were cast. When the two-day recount ended at 1 a.m. Sunday, the exhausted board declared Wennet the winner by 60 votes. The veteran jurist went into the recount trailing by 17 votes.

Secretary of State Kurt Browning warned the board that he had to be satisfied that the ballot discrepancy had been resolved. If not, he said he would recommend the state canvassing board reject the results of the judicial race when it meets at 5 p.m. Friday to certify the results of elections statewide.

The rejection would mean that the race would be decided by the courts, he told the board at the midnight meeting.

"These numbers have got to be right," Browning said. "I'm concerned about the perception of the public."

He voiced concern about what would happen if a similar problem occurred in the upcoming presidential election when hundreds of thousands of voters are expected to flock to the polls.

Browning made a surprise visit to the elections office Wednesday afternoon. He said he hopped on a plane with seven members of this staff because "it's tough being in Tallahassee and trying to get to the root of what the issues were. We want to get to a high level of confidence that the numbers are accurate and correct."

The local canvassing board decided to find the missing ballots by sending election staff on a bin-by-bin search.

Jeff Darter, technology manager for the elections office, said the missing ballots were found by comparing precinct-by-precinct totals on election day with those after the recount. When the discrepancies were found, workers counted the ballots stored in individual bins for each of the county's roughly 780 precincts.

By midnight, the process yielded 2,700 ballots that hadn't been recorded during the recount, he said. By early morning, however, canvassing board members agreed they needed a more formal count.

Two-member teams are to go through each bin. Each person is to count every ballot. When their counts agree, they will write down the count, initial it and move onto the next bin.

Officials from Sequoia Voting Systems, which sold the county the $5.5 million optical scan system that debuted countywide in the primary, are also to arrive at the elections office today to help determine if machine failure in any way contributed to the mess.

Browning, a former Pasco Count elections supervisor, said he wasn't totally satisfied with the system the canvassing board used. He suggested elections workers check the numbers on the machines to see how many people voted on election day and recount absentee and early vote totals to get a benchmark of how many ballots were cast.

He worried that counting ballots in bins might not satisfy people that all of the votes were counted.

But, he said, the canvassing board rejected his idea and it wasn't his job to over-rule them.

Facing a 5 p.m. Friday deadline to get the results to the state, the canvassing board agreed that the bin search was the quickest way to clear up the ballot discrepancy and move forward to a second recount.

Browning acknowledged that there were various legal questions swirling around the process. "We're kind of going down a path I don't think the election code contemplated," he said.

Abramson has already threatened to file suit. Wennet, who was vacationing, had an attorney on hand to watch the proceedings.

County Commissioner Mary McCarty, who is on the canvassing board, voiced frustration that some of the ballots were apparently left in bins during the recount.

"Do people doing the counting not realize that all the ballots have to be counted?" she asked.

Still, she said, workers were unaccustomed dealing with the massive amounts of paper that was the main selling point of the optical scan system. State lawmakers outlawed the county's 6-year-old touch-screen voting system because it couldn't produce a paper trail that could be used to verify close elections.

Further, McCarty said, those counting the ballots over the weekend were suffering from sleep deprivation. They, along with her and fellow canvassing board members County Court Judge Barry Cohen and Commissioner Addie Greene, barely slept during the recount that began at about 5 p.m. Friday and concluded about 1 a.m. Sunday. The deadline to complete the manual recount was 5 p.m. Tuesday.

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