There’s a storm brewing in the Sunshine State, and once again Palm Beach County is at the center of the turmoil. The problem arises because of a ballot printing error on absentee ballots in Palm Beach County.The County contracted with an Arizona firm to produce the ballots, and the firm printed about 60,000 absentee ballots before anyone noticed the error: all of the races had a “header” over each section of the ballot except for the section for Judicial Retention elections. For example, before listing the presidential candidates, the ballot says “President and Vice President” in both English and Spanish in all capital letters and in boldface type. The Judicial Retention portion of the ballot, however, lists the candidates without any identifying header. Palm Beach County mailed out thousands of these absentee ballots to voters before catching the mistake.
Although problematic, it’s not a big deal, one might think. A few absentee voters might miss that race as they work their way through the ballot, but that fact should not have national implications. It turns out, however, that whether there is a proper header for the Judicial Retention election affects the placement of other races on the ballot. This makes the ballots lacking the header unreadable on the tabulation machine. That is, election officials cannot put the absentee ballots missing a header for the Judicial Retention elections through the machine to tabulate the votes, making the entire ballot unreadable. Voters have returned approximately 27,000 of these “bad” ballots. The question now is what to do about them.
Palm Beach County officials maintain that is impossible to reprogram the machines or otherwise use the “bad” ballots. Instead, they have devised a scheme to “duplicate” the unusable ballots onto “good” ballots that the machine can read. Ten teams of two members each are taking the absentee ballots containing the error and copying them onto ballots that have the proper header. One member of the team must be a Democrat; the other is a Republican. A supervisor is overseeing the process, making sure the team copies the ballots accurately. Three people representing candidates – one for a Democrat, one for a Republican, and one for a non-partisan candidate – are sitting behind each team to watch the process. Election officials are selecting these observers on a first-come first-served basis. A three-member Canvassing Board, comprised of Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher (a Democrat), County Commissioner Priscilla Taylor (a Democrat), and County Court Judge Caroline Shepherd (Florida Judges are nonpartisan, but Judge Shepard originally was appointed by then-Republican Governor Charlie Crist) resolve questions about ballots that are unclear, such as those that have stray marks, circles, or votes crossed out. In addition, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner – a Republican appointed by Governor Rick Scott – sent two deputies to monitor the procedure.