A Palm Beach County elections worker inspects a potential hanging chad following the 2000 presidential election. (Photo courtesy of State Library and Archives of Florida.)

By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Twelve years after Bush v. Gore, Palm Beach County still faces serious problems with its voting machines.

A Palm Beach Post investigation reveals that although Palm Beach County has spent more than $20 million on electronic voting systems to replace the discredited punch-card ballots of hanging-chad infamy, its current high-tech equipment cannot be fully trusted to perform the most basic tasks: count votes correctly and keep them secure.

This is the conclusion of computer scientists in California who tested the equipment, which was created by Sequoia Voting Systems but now owned by Dominion Voting Systems, the Post found.

Flaws weren’t confined to the laboratory. Four times in the last four years, ballot-counting went awry in local elections that used the Sequoia equipment:

  • In a West Palm Beach City Commission special election in June 2008, almost 700 votes from three precincts — or 14 per cent of the ballots cast — were not counted. “Memory cartridges had been read by machines twice instead of once during pre-election testing. So when actual votes were entered, a tabulating system prevented them from being counted, placing them in a special file. Election staff did not know to look at the special file.” The snafu didn’t change the election’s outcome.
  • In a county judicial election in August 2008, two voting machines counted the same number of paper ballots and came up with different totals. First, William Abramson led by 17 votes. After a machine recount, Richard Wennet led by 60 votes. Then nearly 3,500 votes “disappeared” — a combination of a faulty memory cartridge and human error. When the missing votes were found, Abramson was declared winner by 61 votes.
  • In the Indian River County presidential primary in August 2008, more than 10,000 votes were counted twice.
  • In Wellington village elections in March 2012, results were swapped among two council seats and the mayor’s race, causing two village council seat losers to be declared winners. “The elections supervisor blamed the software; the software maker denied responsibility.”

With Florida shaping up once again to be a major swing state in a presidential election, these flaws are of more than local interest.

“Wellington better be a wake-up call,” Ion Sancho, Leon County’s elections supervisor and an outspoken critic of the state’s election procedures, told the Post. “We should not take this process for granted.”

Reporters Pat Beall and Adam Playford say it is impossible to know how many problems have been corrected — Dominion Voting Systems declined to answer questions, saying only that the system has improved. The company doesn’t have to talk. Its processes are considered business secrets — one of the downsides of turning over the public’s elections machinery to private hands.

Unfortunately, the state’s problems with its voting machinery are much more complicated than a few upgrades, the Post reporters write:

  • The California study found that other systems were equally flawed. And experts’ scrutiny of voting software has unearthed problems with virtually every technology and product, even as a federal agency established to provide oversight is so weak that its White House-appointed board has no members.
  • Paper ballots are widely considered better than both punch cards and touch-screen equipment. Yet this is largely true only because the original votes can be counted again – and Florida law sharply restricts audits and recounts.

The Post pursued the story after investigative reporter Beall became curious about what had caused the Wellington snafu. She started digging and found a California study highly critical of the Sequoia equipment — a study that had been published months before Palm Beach County bought the system. She teamed with Playford, an investigative reporter and computer programmer.

Their series, which began on Sunday, continues in the Post‘s print editions Monday and Tuesday.