The Florida Times-Union

October 22, 2008

Duval County officials locate polling problems


Duval County elections officials blamed misprinted ballots after investigating a polling problem that left dozens of early voters in limbo.

Elections Supervisor Jerry Holland said a combination of poll worker and mechanical errors pushed ballot printing out-of-line, leaving the scanning equipment unable to read some of the votes. Ballots are made one-by-one as voters check in at the polls.

Almost 90 ballots so far have been secured but remain uncounted until the county canvassing board can review them. In an emotional election where voter turnout is expected to hit record numbers and the margin of victory could be slim, the situation had officials in city, state and federal offices emerging at polling places and news conferences Tuesday to assure voters their votes would count.

Still, some close to the situation were quick to compare the misprinted ballots with the hanging and dimpled chads that became household names during the 2000 presidential election.

"We have spent so much money and so much time to get this right, especially in Florida, and here we are," said Amy Kapp, the regional voter protection coordinator for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Kapp and her counterpart in the John McCain campaign, Paul Renner, were watching election workers test equipment. She was talking about the ballot problems that left many Florida voters feeling disenfranchised after George W. Bush beat Al Gore eight years ago in the state by 537 votes.

The optical scanning equipment, manufactured by Premier Election Solutions, a Texas company operating in 33 states, was put in place as part of a federal movement to ensure better accountability at the polls.

"We don't want voter confidence destroyed," said state Rep. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat. "It's alarming, but not fatal like 2000."

Elections officials say the ballot printing problem isn't an omen for worse things to come on Nov. 4. The difference, Holland explained, is that early voting is done at fewer sites, requiring the ballots to be produced on demand. On Election Day, a printing company will have mass-produced ballots that will be quality-tested before the polls open.

Gibson was flanked throughout the day by City Council members Mia Jones, Warren Jones, Johnny Gaffney, Denise Lee and U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., who worked to ensure voters that they would have a say in the general election.

"You hear that a lot, that they couldn't get it right in 2000 and they can't get it right now. But it's apples and oranges," added Holland. "In this situation, we still have the ballots to scan later. With the punch cards, the damage is done and you could lose the votes."

The scanning equipment was among the initial theories for a snag at the polls that started Monday and progressed through Tuesday morning. Seven of 15 optical scanning machines in Duval County were thought culprit because the ballots weren't feeding in properly.

That led Holland to turn to Premier for replacements. He said the company sent 10 additional scanners - which typically cost $6,500 each - on loan, so the county did not have to purchase additional equipment.

It turned out that the scanners weren't the problem. Holland said election workers realized the printing equipment was to blame early Tuesday as they noticed hash marks on the sides of the ballots were not evenly aligned among the documents. He further explained that the paper trays in some of the machines were overstuffed, leading the pages to come out crooked.

An initial read of elections records from Monday and Tuesday, which remained incomplete Tuesday evening, showed 87 people and counting had cast ballots that the scanning equipment could not read. Holland said those votes will be included in the final count.

Few problems were reported in Baker, Clay, Nassau and St. Johns counties as early voters cast ballots on Tuesday. Nassau County Supervisor of Elections Vicki Cannon said she had just one ballot that wouldn't scan. Her canvassing board will correct that soon, she added.

In Duval County, four voting sites - Webb Wesconnett, Highlands, Mandarin and Bradham-Brooks Northwest libraries - were the most problematic.

State and local lawmakers scrutinizing the polls said they watched as ballots at the sites were re-scanned into other machines to ensure the votes were tallied.

Jones, a candidate for the state House, said about 20 voters stayed behind at Webb Wesconnett library to make sure their votes were counted Monday night.

"They left there comfortable knowing that their vote was counted," she said, urging people to keep faith in the system.

Statewide, 153,000 people voted on Monday, the first day of early voting, Gibson said.

Local election officials reported a 20 percent decline in voter turnout Tuesday but were not alarmed. With early voting, Holland said it's typical for the first day to see a big push. Then, voters drop off and gradually increase as Election Day approaches., (904) 359-4025, (904) 359-4546