Politics & Government

The ABCs — and even the XYZs — of vote counting in Florida

rkoltun@miamiherald.com

With extended polling days, computerized voting and widespread use of mail-in ballots, it’s easier than ever to be a voter. And it’s more nuts than ever for Florida elections officials, for whom Election Day has turned into Election Two Weeks, a tip-toe path through about a zillion potential technological potholes.

“It’s so complicated, like a fancy watch with a lot of wheels spinning and buzzing,” says Tonya Edwards, spokeswoman for the Broward County elections office. “And everything has to tick exactly on time for the watch to work.”

Though the polls won’t close until the night of Nov. 8, elections supervisors all over Florida are already counting ballots (but not votes! more on that later), comparing smudgy mailed-in signatures to registration records, and coaxing temperamental computers to mind their manners.

“It’s pretty crazy over here,” said a worker at the Miami-Dade election department’s office in Doral last week. “And it’s not going to be sane until next month when the election is over.”

Practically everything about elections has gotten more complicated over the past quarter-century, as digital technology has pushed first its nose and now nearly its whole body into the tent. But nothing has evolved so much as the process of counting the votes. “There are three ways to cast a vote now, and that means we essentially have three processes for counting them,” says Miami-Dade Elections Supervisor Christina White.

Actually, there are probably more than three, because state law sets only the broad outlines of how ballots are counted. Each county elections supervisor has considerable leeway in setting procedures — and because Florida uses two different brands of voting machines with slightly differing technologies, it’s impossible for everyone to follow precisely the same vote-counting blueprint.

The number of voters — ranging from more than 1.3 million in metropolitan Miami-Dade to barely 4,500 in little Lafayette in the Panhandle — makes a difference, too. The big urban counties mostly allow voting on the Sunday before Election Day, for instance, while the small rural ones mostly don’t.

Even the elections supervisors themselves aren’t completely sure how the procedures in one county might differ from another. “We all have elections at the same time, of course, so it’s not like I’ve ever been able to observe how Miami-Dade does, because I’m always busy here,” said Ion Sancho, who is wrapping up 27 years as Leon County’s supervisor. (He did get a first-hand look at the ugly aftermath of one, when he was appointed to lead the hand-count of Miami-Dade’s infamous hanging-chad ballots after the 2000 election.)

The most complicated counting process is the one for mail-in (formerly absentee) ballots, which have increased dramatically in recent years: Miami-Dade already had 107,000 in hand at the beginning of last week, with around 20,000 new arrivals every day.

Starting 15 days before the election, election offices begin the laborious process of wrangling the mail-ins as they arrive. In some counties, including Leon and Miami-Dade, they’re fed into a machine that checks to see if the outer envelope has been signed by the voter as required by law, and — utilizing software similar to what banks use to screen check signatures — compares them to the signatures in registration records. (In Broward, Edwards said, that initial screening is handled by live human eyeballs.)

Envelopes bounced during the initial screen have three chances at a reprieve. They’re rechecked by a specially trained elections department worker; if they flunk that test, a supervisor takes a look; and if they’re still under suspicion, they’re presented to the county canvassing board, composed of the elections supervisors and two county judges.

Until recently, if the canvassing agreed that the signatures didn’t match, that was the end of the line for the ballot, which would never be opened or counted. But earlier this month, a testy federal judge called that procedure “obscene” and said voters have to be contacted and given an opportunity to show contested ballots are theirs and were properly cast. They can file appeals up to 5 p.m. the day before the election.

“This is a new process,” said White, “so I don’t yet know how this will impact the number of disqualified ballots, which generally runs around 1 percent.”

Ballots that are approved go through the machine a second time, this time to sort them by precinct and slit open the envelopes. On the same day they arrive, the folded ballots are carefully removed by election workers, then fed into high-speed tabulators that record the votes without totaling them.

In an age when “rigged elections” has become a social-media buzz-phrase, that’s practically an open invitation to conspiracy theorists: Why couldn’t an election worker check the vote total on those tabulators each day and, out of loyalty or venality, relay the information to candidates or political parties? With Florida a swing state that might wind up deciding the presidential election, as it did in 2000, surely a trailing candidate would dearly love to know that he or she needs to spend more money and make more appearances to make up ground.

The answer, elections supervisors say, is that it’s impossible for any human being to find out what the tabulators know. In fact, the machines themselves won’t even know what they know until Election Day.

“The analogy I heard when I started in this field, one I think is a pretty good description, is that it’s like entering numbers into a calculator,” says White. “Until you hit the equal sign, you do not know the cumulative result.”

And hitting that equal sign cannot be done casually or secretively. “If you give the command to the tabulator to generate numbers, to give results, it won’t record any more ballots,” notes Sancho. “It’s designed that way as sort of a fail-safe. You can’t get the numbers out of the machine easily, and if you tried, everyone would see that you did, and you would be found out. You’d never get away with it.”

Because voters can hand-deliver mail-in ballots right up until the polls close on Election Day, the tabulators won’t be ordered to provide vote totals until then. The rules are slightly different for ballots cast at polling places during early voting.

They, too, are fed into tabulators on a daily basis. But because early voting ends just before Election Day — on Sunday in most of the bigger counties, Saturday in some of the small ones — elections departments could obtain their results from the tabulators hours or even days before the polls close.

That fact became painfully apparent during the August primary elections, when early-voting results from Broward were accidentally posted on the internet about a half hour before polls closed.

The gaffe resulted when a private contractor in charge of posting results on official elections-department websites for Broward and most of the rest of the state accidentally hooked what was supposed to be an internal preview page onto the live internet where everyone could see it.

Every county is vulnerable to that kind of physical mistake, elections supervisors say, because in order to report early-voting results to the state by 7:30 p.m., as required by law, they have to start the tabulation around 6 p.m. “If you want to get the votes in by that time, then you have to start a little bit earlier,” says White. “There is just no way around that.”

“I don’t know how we could start tabulating much later than 6 p.m.,” says Sancho. “But I don’t want to do it any earlier than that, because once you’ve got a number, the possibility exists that it can get out.”

Compared to all the delicate security measures surrounding mail-in ballots and early voting, regular Election Day counting is pretty simple. When all the voters who’ve reached a given precinct by 7 p.m. closing time have finished casting their ballots — in the last election, that was close to midnight in some parts of Florida — the tabulators are ordered to give up their totals, and within 20 minutes or so, we know how each precinct voted.

Except.

“Write-in candidates, in a lot of counties, those won’t actually be counted until the day after the election,” says Sancho. “They have to be counted by hand. The crazy votes, for [former Florida State football coach] Bobby Bowden or Mickey Mouse, they don’t get counted at all. But for registered write-in candidates — we’ve got two of them in the presidential race this year, Darrell Castle [of the Constitutional Party] and Roque De La Fuente [of the Reform Party] — those votes obviously can’t be read by a machine.” So, take a deep breath. The election season is even longer than you think.

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