Voting problems are inevitable on Election Day and in the days leading up to it. Already there have been scattered reports of machine malfunctions and ballot misprints around the country, and election officials say they are preparing for the worst.
Perhaps nowhere are voters and officials more sensitive to potential problems than in Palm Beach County, Fla., home of the infamous butterfly ballot from the 2000 presidential recount.
Brad Merriman is the man running the Palm Beach County elections — a job he inherited this year in addition to his role handling hurricane preparedness.
"I just kind of float from one disaster to another, and we're kind of hoping this election won't be one," Merriman said at a meeting of the local League of Women Voters, working the room like a stand-up comic.
He knows people here are worried. The county is on its third set of voting equipment in eight years — from punch card machines to electronic touch-screen machines to optically scanned paper ballots. But when the optical-scan system was used this summer, 3,500 paper ballots were misplaced during a recount.
"We had a little joke amongst our team. We now have a paper trail. We just can't find [it]," he told the group.
But no one was laughing back when the ballots were misplaced. It turned out that they were in boxes that were overlooked.
Voting Lessons From Florida
Later at his office, Merriman says he had to reorganize the system.
"One of the lessons that we learned — which is critical to paper ballots — is that you have to treat these ballots like they're evidence," he says.
This means giving the ballots a strict chain of custody from start to finish. But that's only one problem with optically scanned paper ballots — a voting system that for the first time this year will be used by most Americans.
Another problem is that many voters do not follow the directions.
Jess Santamaria is a Palm Beach County commissioner who was on the board that oversaw the August recount. He says that sometimes voting officials could not tell the voter's intent. Although a winner was declared, Santamaria says he honestly could not say who won.
Board members disagreed on hundreds of ballots. Voters were supposed to connect an arrow next to the candidate's name with a thin line, but Santamaria says lots of people did something else.
"Some drew a very thick line like this. Some drew a very crooked line like this. Some didn't draw anything and put an X. Some drew a circle," he says.
One woman even kissed the ballot, marking her choices with lipstick.
Possible Problems In November
Merriman says he is worried because he is already seeing similar problems this fall. Early voters can redo their ballots before they leave the polling place if they make a mistake, but that's not the case for an estimated 150,000 people in the county expected to mail in absentee ballots.
Thad Hall, a voting expert at the University of Utah and co-author of Electronic Elections: The Perils and Promises Of Digital Democracy, says that what is happening in Palm Beach is an object lesson in the pitfalls of any voting system, paper or electronic.
"Often it is a poll worker problem or it's some sort of voter education problem or it's a procedural problem," Hall says. "It's not the machine or the ballot itself — it's this interaction between people, processes and technology."
And often, he says, it's something unexpected, such as thousands of absentee ballots already cast in Georgia that will have to be hand-copied because the original ballots contain a printing flaw and can't be read by the machines. Voting-rights advocates are also worried about continued problems with touch-screen voting machines. Although their use is on the decline, this equipment will be used by a third of the electorate.
Larry Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University says many states still don't have enough paper ballots on hand if something goes wrong.
"For those voters, if the voting machines fail, right now if there aren't what are called emergency paper ballots available at the polling place, they're going to have to wait until somebody comes and repairs the machine or brings paper ballots to the polling place," Norden says.
That could be a big problem if, as expected, there are large crowds on Nov. 4 — not to mention mysterious voting machine glitches, such as inconsistent counts or disappearing votes. Such discrepancies are usually resolved, but Hall says they could be crucial if the vote is close.
Still, he's optimistic. "By and large, most people are going to have a fine experience, and they should all go out and vote and have a good time," Hall says.