(Palm Beach Post) – A printing error on some 60,000 absentee ballots sent to Palm Beach County voters this month could affect the outcome of every race that will be decided Nov. 6, including the hotly contested presidential election, Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher said today.
Initially, it appeared the mistake would only cause confusion in the merit retention elections of three Florida Supreme Court justices. However, Bucher said, the error will make it impossible for tabulating machines to count votes on about half of the flawed ballots.
“It won’t be able to read them,” she said. “It will just kick them out.”
To assure all votes are counted, she has asked county officials to provide extra workers to help manually sort the ballots that have already begun streaming into her office. An Arizona company, Runbeck Election Services, which admitted it made the mistake, will pick up the tab.
She has asked for a supervisor, 20 “quality control” workers and an undetermined number of people who will serve on two-member teams. The teams will duplicate the ballots so the machines can read them. By law, they can begin opening ballots 15 days before the Nov. 6 election.
In Palm Beach County, which has had several election meltdowns since it made national headlines in 2000 with its infamous butterfly ballot that sent the presidential election into chaos, such extra measures have been taken before.
“We will provide whatever support the supervisor requests,” said Assistant County Administrator Brad Merriman. He dispatched a group of county workers and oversaw the 2008 presidential election here after problems arose under a former supervisor. “We will try to use people who are familiar with the process,” he said.
As Bucher figured out the scope of the problem and ways to correct it, a lawsuit threatened.
Tallahassee attorney Barry Richard, who represents Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, said he wants Bucher to do more to alert the 60,000 voters about the ballot flaw.
The committee he chairs for Pariente today began a phone campaign to alert voters that unlike other races there is no header above the ones for the justices. He and others are worried voters will either be confused or unable to locate the place on the ballot where they can decide whether to keep the three jurists on the bench for another six years. Unlike other years, when the so-called merit retention elections drew little interest, the three face stiff opposition from conservative groups and the Republican Party of Florida.
In the robo-call to the absentee voters, Richard says there’s “an urgent matter in regards to a printing error that appears on the absentee ballot that you have received or may receive shortly.” After explaining the problem, he says, “This election is critical to the maintenance of a fair, impartial and nonpartisan judiciary.”
While Bucher doesn’t have to mimic his support of the justices, he said she should make a similar call. “She could do a very neutral, automated message,” said Richard, who was lead counsel for George W. Bush in the 2000 election that was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bucher, who late today sent out a two-line press release about the problem, said she won’t do a robo-call. “That’s campaigning,” she said. “I don’t feel comfortable as a non-partisan elected official to draw attention to any particular race.”
But if Bucher won’t do it voluntarily, Richard said the committee will file a lawsuit, probably Thursday. “We’re not doing it to make life difficult for her or to embarrass her,” he said. But, he added, if she is worried about running afoul of the limits on her constitutional powers, a judicial ruling, ordering her to make the calls, would eliminate those concerns.
Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party, said he supported Bucher’s decision. “We stand with Susan, trusting the voters to figure out what they want to do.” While he said the party probably could intervene in the lawsuit, he said it had neither the time or money to do so.
Slade O’Brien, Florida director of a group which is running ads criticizing the three judges, said he wasn’t aware of the Palm Beach County ballot problem. “I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot poll,” he said when asked about the lawsuit. He is state director for Americans for Prosperity, which is bankrolled by billionaires David and Charles Koch.
“What a mess is all I can say,” he added. “Typical Palm Beach County.”