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Palm Beach County election mess passed on to the courts   (FL)

Mark Hollis     South Florida Sun-Sentinel     05 September 2008

Another Palm Beach County election mess, including thousands of missing ballots, stumbled toward a new venue Friday with county officials leaving it to the courts to decide a disputed judicial race.

Members of the county's elections canvassing board have halted their weeklong attempts to verify who won a razor-thin race between Circuit Judge Richard Wennet and William Abramson.

"We have done as thorough of a post- or mid-election review as we can do to reconcile apparently irreconcilable numbers," said County Judge Barry Cohen, the chairman of the canvassing board.

Canvassing board members insisted, though, that they expect an investigation into why nearly 3,500 ballots disappeared between the Aug. 26 primary election and a recount last weekend.

"We intend to get to the bottom of it, however, we cannot count anymore," said Mary McCarty, a member of the canvassing board.

McCarty noted that there appears to have been no single reason for the missing ballot dilemma. Therefore, she said, there's new emphasis on figuring out - before the Nov. 4 general election - all the factors.

"There isn't just one precinct missing 2,500 or 3,000 ballots," McCarty said. "And there isn't just one systemic problem, like the machines or the poll workers. It is a lot of different things that come together in perfect storm ... If it was just one thing, we would have found it."

Hoping to reassure a jittery public, McCarty said county commissioners "will do whatever it takes," including purchasing more voting equipment and beefing up county assistance to the Supervisor of Elections Office, before November. The Aug. 26 primary was the first test of new equipment that requires voting on paper ballots.

Throughout Friday, roughly 75 county workers, firefighters, deputies and others scoured the county's nearly 500 polling places and elections offices in hopes of finding any ballots that may have been left behind. None were found, as of late afternoon.

The workers were given quick training in the morning on what to look for.

"We did a show and tell," said Assistant County Administrator Brad Merriman. "We said, 'This is a plastic box that you might look for, or a cardboard box like this,' and we showed them what a ballot looked like, stuff like that."

Also Friday, a machine counting of the ballots produced a different total - by hundreds of ballots - than what was counted by hand Thursday.

Elections workers also continued a check of voting logs. That search, though incomplete Friday afternoon, appeared to verify that about the same number of people signed precinct registers on Election Day as the number of votes cast at the polling places, according to Supervisor of Elections Arthur Anderson.

Abramson, who is expected to file a legal challenge to the election, possibly in a circuit court in Tallahassee, said the precinct registers are good news for him. He said they are likely to indicate that 102,523 people voted in the election. After a recount in the judicial race, election workers could account for only 99,045 ballots.

Abramson contends that the county canvassing board should not have certified the judge's race after the recount - a recount that gave Wennet a 60-vote lead over election-night numbers that indicated Abramson won by 17 votes.

Gov. Charlie Crist and other members of the state canvassing board Friday morning certified all of the primary election results statewide, with the only exception being the Abramson/Wennet race.

"It now shifts back to the governor and state elections canvassing board," said Abramson, expressing his hopes that the state will order the county to recertify the judicial race using election night numbers, and not results from the recount.

Wennet's attorney, Gerald Richman, said that should the state canvassing board take that step, it's likely that Wennet will sue.

County Commissioner Jess Santamaria, a canvassing board member, said he remains concerned about the accuracy of the optical scan voting machines, and he said he thinks some of the ballot-counting mystery is owed to the rush officials were under to produce a recount.

"People were being unnecessarily hasty," Santamaria said. There were uncertainties about how long a recount would take, and thus, errors may have occurred, he said.

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