MIAMI — Due to malfunctioning voting machines and scores of missing recount votes, Palm Beach County is on the verge of being the only one of 67 counties in Florida to miss a Thursday afternoon deadline for having its initial recount numbers turned in to the state.
Those failures have made Palm Beach County — ground zero for Florida’s 2000 presidential elections debacle — to once again be the crown jewel in a fresh round of the state’s nationally watched election gaffes, making the Sunshine State a “laughingstock,” a federal judge said Thursday.
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This time, it’s Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher in the crosshairs. But the ultimate problems — out-of-date machines and tabulation equipment — were purchased by her predecessors.
“We were trying to drive a ’65 Mustang to L.A. and back with a bad fan belt, and we were hoping we wouldn’t break down,” Bucher told POLITICO in a phone interview. “But we broke down.”
Palm Beach County is the only Florida county to use Sequoia Voting Systems, which Bucher said were purchased at the direction of her predecessor, Arthur Anderson, over her objection as a state House member in 2007. The original system was purchased in 2002 by former Supervisor of Elections Theresa LePore, who designed the infamous butterfly ballot that likely cost Democrat Al Gore the presidency in 2000. The touchscreen system from Sequoia that she bought was banned by the Florida legislature after a series of controversies over alleged missing votes in Palm Beach and other counties.
Bucher said the machines was so unable to handle the strain of machine recounts right after Election Day in races for the U.S. Senate, governor, agriculture commissioner and a local state House race that they “melted down” Tuesday, forcing the recount of about 175,000 ballots that had already been recounted.
Bucher said she discovered yet another problem: the recounted vote tallies in 30 precincts were off when compared to the original vote tallies from Election Day.
“When the machines died, it dropped part of our tally,” she said. “I haven’t added the ballots up, but it’s about 30 precincts. I don’t care how many it is. We’re just trying to get them.”
As for making the 3 p.m. recount deadline, Bucher said at about 2 p.m., “there’s no way we can make it unless 3 p.m. is in five hours.”
Hours before the deadline, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker rejected a lawsuit from the Nelson campaign and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to extend that deadline. The Nelson campaign, though, plans to file a lawsuit in state court now asking for an extension just in Palm Beach County. The Senate race is likely to be close enough to head into a manual recount. In that race, Republican Gov. Rick Scott leads Nelson by 12,562 votes.
Walker openly expressed his annoyance with the process so far.
“We have been the laughingstock of the world, election after election, and we chose not to fix this,” Walker, who is overseeing several recount-related lawsuits, most filed by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), said during a Thursday hearing.
Walker also speculated that Palm Beach County could continue counting voters through Sunday, which is the day official results are due to the state. He admitted, however, he feels like he is “blind-folded” because of the uncertainty out of Palm Beach County.
Palm Beach County had been in the spotlight since Election Day Nov. 6 because along with Broward County, it was slow to finalize its vote count. Since that time, Palm Beach County has started to capture much of the negative attention on its own.
Earlier this week, Bucher said her top priority was the Senate race and announced she couldn’t finish the other contests on time.
Under state law, if the deadline is not met, the vote count reverts back to the first unofficial results, which were due last Saturday.
“The law also states that even if they don’t make the deadline, counties should continue with the recount, along with any prescribed manual recount, and certify the election returns,” said Sarah Revell, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State.
Once Palm Beach County was hopelessly behind and her staff had been worked past the point of exhaustion, Bucher said all she could do was go to “prayer mode” and send her workers home.
“They hadn’t slept. They were exhausted. The machines weren’t working,” she said. “Trust me, we would have had a bigger problem if we had exhausted technicians working on machines that were breaking down. We’re going to get it right.”