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From the
Palm Beach Post

Interest in absentee ballots skyrockets

Friday, July 23, 2004
By Jane Musgrave

Like a Baptist minister, U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler has been preaching the evils of touch-screen voting and the eternal damnation that will befall the Democratic Party if the faithful don't cast absentee ballots in the upcoming fall elections.

"It's the only way to create a paper record of your ballot," Wexler, D-Boca Raton, implores voters at meetings throughout Palm Beach County.

And party loyalists apparently believe.

Joined by Republicans, who have long been advised to vote early, the Democratic Party's drive for paper ballots is expected to push absentee voting in Florida to record levels in the fall elections, particularly in big counties with touch-screen voting machines.

With more than a month to go before the Aug. 31 primary, interest in absentee ballots is at an all-time high ...


In a state that simultaneously became a target of jokes and scorn during the 2000 presidential debacle, political scientists worry that, this year, absentee ballots will put the county back in the national limelight.

This time, they say, instead of visions of squinty-eyed election workers analyzing chads, handwriting experts will be center stage, offering their opinions about what votes should and shouldn't be allowed.

"If it's close -- and most people think it will be -- my guess is that the lawsuits will be over absentee ballots," said Susan McManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

Those who know all too well the perils of close elections said they too have concerns.

Palm Beach County Commissioner Warren Newell, ... said he doesn't trust the optical scanners that will read the absentee ballots.

"I've watched the machines count out different results each time we put the ballots through," he said.

County Judge Barry Cohen, ... said he worries that votes will be thrown out simply because people's signatures have changed.


Apart from flawed signatures, Newell said, people just do strange things with absentee ballots. Some punch holes in them, some draw lines, some use crayons, some scrawl obscenities.

LePore, however, said the vast majority of absentee ballots that have been thrown out were because people didn't include a witness and the witness' address. This year, the legislature dropped the requirement, so a witness' signature is no longer required.

While no figures for the 2000 presidential election were available, in the 2002 gubernatorial election 1,227 of the 51,131 absentee ballots cast countywide were rejected.

Of those, 948 were rejected because a witness' name or address was missing, and 197 because a voter failed to sign the ballot. Only 80 were rejected because the signature didn't match voter registration cards, and two were thrown out for other reasons.

The Florida Division of Elections doesn't compile historical information ... But at the request of the legislature, this year it did compile figures from the March presidential primary.

According to the incomplete survey, about 2,000 of the 97,080 absentee ballots cast statewide were rejected because they didn't include a witness' signature, and another 2,000 were rejected for other, unidentified reasons.


Those who have studied elections say Florida lawmakers may regret their decision to eliminate the witness requirement.

Witness signatures helped reveal fraud in Miami's 1997 mayoral race, one of the largest cases of ballot-tampering in state history.

After uncovering the vote of one dead person, officials discovered that the same person had witnessed 75 other ballots. Amid evidence that ballots had been forged and people had been paid to vote, an appeals court threw out all 5,200 absentee ballots and overturned the election.

LePore insisted that the Miami election was an anomaly.

"That's one case out of thousands of elections," she said. "There's so many safeguards built into the system."


One of the classic election ruses is to go to nursing homes, fill out ballots for the elderly and have them sign their names. To thwart that, LePore's office watches requests closely, and if officials get a lot from the same address, they send staff to the facility to watch residents vote.


But election watchers said that because the ballots are on paper, absentee ballots are just accidents waiting to happen.

"Let me tell you what a Miami-Dade County elections official told me when I asked him how he would throw an election," said Douglas James, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa who has analyzed election systems throughout the country. "He told me, 'I'd probably go at it through the absentee process.' That's where the vulnerabilities are."

Not only can ballots be forged or entire boxes of ballots simply disappear, but the process is riddled with subjectivity.

"In 2000, some counties had a forgiving approach and others enforced the postmark deadlines strictly," he said. "There was a concerted effort in the 12 counties that were leaning toward Bush for Bush people to say, count them. In other counties, where the voters were more favorable to Gore, they argued the other way.

I am somewhat bothered with the above, since it is not a strict quote. I did not say 12 counties, since I don't know the exact number of counties that leaned one way or the other, and as I recall, I qualified this statement saying somethying like "As I understand, there was a concerted effort ..."

"It may be unethical," he said, "but it's really hard to call it illegal."

But, others pointed out, it's those kind of nuances that armies of attorneys already assembled by both Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry will be looking to jump on.

LePore readily agreed that there's no system in the world that's infallible.

As canvassing board member Cohen said, "No matter what system is used, when it's a close election, all the frailty of the humans involved comes into play."