Every so often here, in the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections office warehouse, someone mutters “Bush v. Gore” or, worse, “butterfly ballot.” For elections workers, November 2000 is an embarrassing legacy. For campaign lawyers, it’s a badge of honor, more Purple Heart than Silver Star. Recently, lawyers and volunteer ballot readers have flocked again to this hapless county, calling to mind 12 years of election blunders. If not for 2000, many say, this month’s printing error that spoiled about 35,000 absentee ballots might have gone unnoticed, and the Supervisor of Elections office might have escaped new scrutiny ahead of the Nov. 6 presidential election.
But elections experts say the scale of this latest mistake and the electoral importance of Florida, plus Palm Beach County’s infamy, have rightly turned the nation’s eyes to South Florida once again. “There’s a laser focus on the state of Florida, and particularly on Palm Beach County,” said Barry Richard, a Tallahassee lawyer who represented George W. Bush in 2000.
Earlier this month, Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher announced that more than half of some 60,000 absentee ballots contained a printing error. The mistake wasn’t in the proofs, she said, so her office mailed them out without noticing headings were missing over the names of Florida Supreme Court justices up for retention.
Richard, who now represents three justices on the ballot, said the lack of a heading could confuse voters who might lump the justices in with candidates for other races. But the mistake has national implications, too. Without the headings, tabulation machines couldn’t read the ballots. So Bucher ordered teams of workers — supervised by herself, a county judge and a county commissioner — to hand copy votes onto good ballots. With more than 27,000 ballots streaming into the office, Bucher anticipates the copy frenzy to last through Election Day.