The dust has settled – sort of – in the “lost ballots snafu” in Palm Beach County Florida, enough that I can correct a very serious mis-reading of the events, and briefly summarize the two completely contradictory “outcomes” of investigation: (1) it’s an accounting problem, not a technology problem, and (2) it’s a technology problem. Either way, the result is a failed election – not just a clouded outcome, but a completely failed election. The very short story: a recount was needed, 3000+ ballots couldn’t be found for the recount, and then things went seriously downhill from there. We’ll never the true results of the re-counted races, or even of the election as a whole. (See this Washington Post article for some background info.)

But let’s save these contradictions and outcomes for RSN, and focus on the mistaken claim that it was a switch from voting machines to paper voting that created this regrettable (and scary, looking ahead to November) situation. The misconception is two-fold: Palm Beach ditched electronic voting in favor of paper voting; and the problems were the result of the switch to paper ballots. But the real truth is that Palm Beach ditched un-recountable paperless voting machines (good thing, because they needed to some serious re-counting), and moved to another electronic voting system that uses paper ballots and precinct optical scanners. The new system’s back-office stuff is just as computerized as the old system’s, and new system’s scanners are black-box computers just much as the old system’s balloting machines were. The good news is that there is a durable record of the voter’s intent; the bad news is that the optical scanners have their own problems, and there is still the mess of PC-based back-office software used to program them.

The second half of the real truth is this: paper ballots were not the problem; paper ballots revealed the problem. This was the problem: poor procedures in handling the transfer from polling places to county central, and in handling ballots at county central. Don’t blame the paper, and in fact be grateful! It is a lot easier to notice the lack of 3000 plus pieces of paper than it to notice some missing data cartridges, much less a few bits missing from the data cartridges. Also, it is a lot easier to change 3000 ballots that are bits than 3000 ballots that are paper.

Let’s hope that this August primary helped shake the kinks out Palm Beach’s new procedures for hand-marked paper ballots. If not, then here is what I hope we don’t see in the November election: a Florida presidential race that’s pretty close; Palm Beach County contribution (to the state total) that is, in toto, completely in doubt and impossible to reconstruct; and a margin of victory that’s dwarfed by the number of Palm Beach County ballots were apparently cast – though we’ll never know for sure exactly how many that was.

Yow! That’s worse that the crazy on-again, off-again inconsistent recounting in 2000. It wouldn’t even be possible to do a recount! Let’s wish Palm Beach the best, and hope we don’t get another Florida electile dysfunction. In fact, if you live there, it’s not too late to volunteer to help with the election.

-- EJS

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