TAMPA, Fla. — Voters cast their ballots in a razor-close election, and opponents head to court as a judge approves another recount.
Welcome back to Palm Beach County, where the more things change, the more they stay the same.
With 41 days to go before the presidential election, election officials and political operatives in this heavily populated Florida county — famous for overvotes, undervotes, butterfly ballots and hanging chads — are worried about a repeat performance of the chaos that clouded the outcome of the 2000 presidential race.
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Two recounts, and counting
Those concerns have been fueled by an otherwise obscure local judge’s race.
County Circuit Judge Richard Wennet faced a strong challenge from William Abramson, a local criminal lawyer, last month. When the ballots were counted, Abramson led by 17 votes out of more than 102,000.
An automatic recount was conducted, which put Wennet ahead by 60 votes. But this time, about 3,500 ballots were missing. The state elections board refused to accept the result.
Off to court they went. A state judge ordered another tally. No result was announced because, while the missing 3,500 votes were found in a warehouse, a fresh batch of 159 that were counted the first time could not be read.
Another machine recount was conducted Tuesday. It said Abramson won, but the machines kicked out 160 ballots they could not read. After those were counted by hand, the county canvassing board declared Abramson the winner. However, Wennet said he might continue the fight.
This back-and-forth has some fearing far worse in November.
‘We could have major problems’
“We have seen problems in Palm Beach County already in the primary,” said Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause Florida, a watchdog group. “I think potentially we could have major problems in Florida again.”
It’s not like they didn’t try to fix things after the electoral meltdown that sent the 2000 election all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
The punch cards are gone. Security cameras monitor all activity in every county election office. Random spot-checks review each ballot in 2 percent of all precincts.
But the “improved” system may not be much better than the old one.
“There’s a lot of improvement needed here and throughout the state of Florida,” said Judge Barry Cohen, chairman of the Palm Beach County Canvassing Board.
For example, to ensure that each voter is properly qualified to vote, the state imposed stringent ID requirements. The rules say a voter’s driver’s license or approved alternative identification must match up exactly with the voter database.
Two problems: Some driver’s licenses have typos. And the voter rolls have never been proofread for errors.
“Requiring to be matched up perfectly to databases which have never been tested for accuracy is simply a prescription to have people disenfranchised,” said Ion Sancho, elections supervisor in Leon County, the location of the state capital, Tallahassee.
Or take the new ballots, which are read by optical scanners. The rules are simple but precise: Voters must blacken in the space between the head of an arrow and a rectangular base beside their preferred candidate’s name, creating a whole arrow by connecting them.
But some voters didn’t understand the directions. So far, election officials say, many ballots have been rendered unreadable by voters who wrote in X’s, checks, boxes, stars or dots.
One voter kissed the ballot and made her mark with lipstick.
U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., has had enough. He called on Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning to try again.
“As the November election approaches, it is absolutely critical that voters in South Florida, and for that matter across the entire state, can participate in this historic election with the utmost confidence that their votes will be counted,” he said.
Florida could decide things again
As in 2000, Florida could be pivotal in a too-close-to-call presidential campaign. And again, as in 2000, the race in Florida is a dead heat.
After comfortably leading in the state for several months, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona has fallen into a statistical tie with Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Obama now leads by 2 percentage points, a difference that falls within the poll’s margin of error.
Other polls — by The Miami Herald, Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and CNN — all agree. The race is a toss-up.
Having learned its lesson in 2000, the Democratic Party is taking no chances. Obama’s campaign has an unprecedentedly large staff in Florida — 350 paid workers in 50 offices running the length and breadth of the state, more than four times the size of McCain’s operation.
Obama said that given the difficulties in Palm Beach County, he planned to station a team of election lawyers in the state.
“I’m not going to anticipate a problem,” Obama said Saturday at a rally in Jacksonville. “I’m just going to prepare for a problem by making sure that we’ve got lawyers in precincts all across the state."
“We are going to make sure the election is run the way it’s supposed to be run,” he said. “The state Democratic Party has registered 300,000 new voters this year alone, but will their votes be counted?”
Jennifer Davis, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, sought to reassure anxious voters — and candidates.
“Sixty-six counties did perfectly well” during the Aug. 26 primary, she said. “We had an administrative error, or some administrative gaps in procedures, in Palm Beach (County), but they are preparing and they will be prepared for November’s elections, as well.”
But the players aren’t so sure.
“It could, unfortunately, be tragic in terms of electing a president of the United States,” said Gerald Richman, the attorney for Wennet and a veteran of Al Gore’s legal team in 2000.
“If it’s a close election, it’ll be 2000 all over again,” he said. “I think we’ll have major problems in Palm Beach County. They’ve got to do their work now.”
For his part, Browning said he was working hard to ensure that Florida did not again become the punchline of painful jokes.
“My mission in life is to keep the late-night comics from having any new material,” he said.
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