Underscoring the deep concern surrounding Palm Beach County’s latest election snafu, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner is sending two observers here on Monday as workers begin an unprecedented process of duplicating an estimated 27,000 absentee ballots. In a letter to Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher late Friday, Detzner said he is sending two deputies to “observe and examine the registration and election processes and the condition, custody and operation of voting systems and equipment.” The deputies, he wrote, are empowered to “supervise the preparation of the voting equipment and procedures for the election.” Both will report their findings to him and file a written report with Palm Beach County Clerk of Courts Sharon Bock. State law allows the secretary of state to take such action “as he sees fit.” But the law also allows candidates, party leaders and others to request that observers be sent in. A spokesman for Detzner said, “This was the secretary’s decision.”
Those who have watched the news of a printing error on the November ballot get worse and more complicated with each passing day said they aren’t surprised by Detzner’s action. With polls showing President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney in a dead heat to win the state, he had no choice, they said. “I would have been surprised if they didn’t because Palm Beach County has an unbroken streak of major screw-ups,” said Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the county Republican Party. Attorney Gerald Richman, who has been involved in battles over several botched elections, including the infamous 2000 presidential election debacle, was less critical. “I think the state is concerned that it be done right,” he said. “It’s an important election.”
The problem started when an Arizona company that printed the ballots failed to include a heading over the merit retention elections for judges on the Florida Supreme Court and 4th District Court of Appeal. The mistake was discovered and corrected after the first 60,000 ballots were printed and 50,000 mailed. It was soon discovered that the error would affect all races on the flawed ballot. When the header was inserted, the races on about half of the ballots shifted, Bucher said. The shift will make it impossible for tabulation machines to count the votes on an estimated 27,000 of the bad ballots. Saying it would be impossible to program machines to read the defective ballots, Bucher said the only alternative is to duplicate them by hand. Late Friday, she sent Detzner a report, outlining how the process will unfold Monday when workers begin opening, sorting and copying the roughly 15,000 absentee ballots that have been returned. Of the total, she said about 8,600 are flawed. Ten two-person teams will copy votes from the bad ballots to clean ones. Each team’s members will be from opposite political parties. Their work will be reviewed by a supervisor, who will make sure the votes were copied correctly.