Florida's absent ballots.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Oct. 28 2004 2:23 AM

Florida's Absent Ballots

In Palm Beach County, voters choose paper over pixels.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.—Everyone knew that both parties would go on the attack during the final days of a close election, but we didn't think they would take it literally. In Sarasota on Tuesday, a 46-year-old man in a Cadillac decided to play chicken with former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who is now running for re-election to Congress. Amazingly, given that she was a pedestrian standing with some of her supporters, rather than driving a car, Harris won. The Cadillac "swerved onto the sidewalk" at the last minute, according to the Associated Press. "I was exercising my political expression," the man, Barry Seltzer, told police. "I did not run them down. I scared them a little." Perhaps the Supreme Court will weigh in on this election after all, if only to decide whether motor-vehicle "flybys" are protected under the First Amendment.

Not to be outdone, an 18-year-old high-school student and aspiring Marine in West Palm Beach ensured that the state's meltdown would be bipartisan. After his girlfriend—now ex-girlfriend—told him she was going to vote for John Kerry, Steven Soper allegedly "beat her and held her hostage with a screwdriver," according to the Palm Beach Post report, which is worth reading in full. In the city of Vero Beach, another Bush supporter, 52-year-old Michael Garone, is accused of pointing a gun at the head of a Kerry supporter. And they say Republicans are trying to suppress turnout.

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Because of the journalistic rule that three makes a trend, the local TV news after the World Series broadcast a story on "political rage." The conclusion from the reporter: "Bottom line, psychiatrists say: Vote, then calm down. Stop watching the 24-hour cable news." But the problem most Palm Beach County voters seem to be worrying about is a much more mundane one: Will our votes be counted?

Because of the county's disastrous 2000 election, when elderly Jews accidentally voted for Pat Buchanan and when 19,000 "overvotes"—most of which were intended for Al Gore—were tossed because the confusing butterfly ballot led voters to think they should punch holes for both the president and the vice president, voters here are particularly knowledgeable about the ins and outs of voting systems and voting machines. Many voters are fearful of the new electronic touch-screen machines that will be used for this election, particularly because the machines lack a paper trail that could be used in a recount. As a result, a huge number of Palm Beach County voters have requested absentee ballots. Wednesday's Palm Beach Post reported that the county's Supervisor of Elections, Theresa LePore (yes, she's still around for one last election), said 128,000 absentee ballots had been mailed out through Monday. That's 17 percent of the more than 735,000 registered voters in the county, and it's 10,000 more absentee ballot requests so far than Miami-Dade County, which has 300,000 more voters. LePore told the paper her office expected to mail another 7,000 each day this week.

The absentee ballots are paper-and-pencil ballots that will be read by optical scan machines, which are the most accurate voting machines available. They're also the only way for voters in the county to cast a physical, paper ballot that can be recounted. The problem was highlighted for area voters after a special election in January for State House District 91. The race was decided by 12 votes, which meant that Florida's automatic recount law kicked in. Except there was nothing to recount, despite 134 blank "undervotes" recorded by the machines. Perhaps voters intentionally didn't cast a ballot in the race, but without a physical ballot, there was no way to inspect the undervotes to be sure.

The local Democratic Party has urged voters who are concerned about the machines' accuracy or who want a paper trail of their ballot to vote absentee. So has the state Republican Party, which earlier this year published a flyer in Miami that read, "Make sure your vote counts. Order your absentee ballot today."

But now voters claim they haven't received their absentee ballots in the mail, even though the ballots must be returned by 7 p.m. on Election Day in order for them to be counted. Nothing like Broward County's 50,000 missing ballots has occurred, and LePore blamed the post office for the problem. She told the Palm Beach Post, "We take them to the post office and then it's out of my hands." Voters who don't receive their ballots can still vote at the polls, but at the early-voting sites, the lines have been long: The wait was at least an hour each time I stopped by West Palm Beach's polling place on Wednesday.

Before the county's Democrats get hysterical and start aiming their cars at LePore, they should know that their party has at least two reasons for optimism. The first was noted earlier this month by Howard Goodman, a columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. According to Goodman, "Between August 2000 and August 2004, the Democratic voter rolls in Palm Beach County increased by 30,582. Almost 26,000 other people registered without declaring a political party. But Republicans added only 326 people."

The second is that Palm Beach County uses Sequoia touch-screen machines, which were adapted in Nevada to include a paper trail. In that state, the Washington Post reported this week, "They were used for the fall primary, and tests afterward showed that the paper totals and electronic totals matched perfectly." So, Florida voters, by all means, vote absentee if it makes you feel better. But Nevada's primary provides a good reason to trust the machines.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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