MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Now, to Palm Beach County in Florida. It is infamously the home of the butterfly ballot that caused so much trouble in the 2000 election. And this year, around the country, there have already been scattered reports of machine malfunctions and ballot misprints, and some glitches are, of course, inevitable. But the people that run elections in Palm Beach County are particularly sensitive to those concerns, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER: Brad Merriman is used to reassuring people when he's not running Palm Beach County elections, a job he inherited this year. He handles hurricane preparedness.
Mr. BRAD MERRIMAN: So, I just kind of float from one disaster to another, and we're kind of hoping that this election won't be one. Yes, ma'am. A question already. What?
FESSLER: Like a stand-up comic, he works the crowd. In this case, the local League of Women Voters. Merriman knows people here are worried. The county is on its third set of voting equipment in eight years. First, punch card machines, then electronic touch-screen machines, and now, optically scanned paper ballots. But when that system was used this summer, 3,500 paper ballots were misplaced during a recount.
Mr. MERRIMAN: We had a little joke amongst our team. We now have a paper trail. We just can't find it.
FESSLER: Ha-ha. But no one was laughing at the time. It turns out that the ballots were in boxes that were overlooked. Merriman back in his office, checking an overloaded email inbox, says he had to reorganize the system.
Mr. MERRIMAN: 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.
FESSLER: Which means 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, voters don't follow directions.
Mr. JESS SANTAMARIA (Commissioner, Palm Beach County): Sometimes we honestly couldn't tell the intent of the voter.
FESSLER: Jess Santamaria is a Palm Beach County commissioner who was on the board that oversaw the August recount. A winner was declared, but he says he honestly can't 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 shows on a piece of paper what people did instead.
Mr. SANTAMARIA: 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.
FESSLER: One woman even kissed the ballot, marking her choices with lipstick. Brad Merriman is worried because he is already seeing similar problems again this fall. Early voters can redo their ballots if they make a mistake, but that's not the case for an estimated 150,000 people expected to mail in absentee ballots.
Dr. THAD HALL (Political Science Department, University of Utah): It's pretty easy to make a small mistake that causes a big problem.
FESSLER: Thad Hall is a voting expert at the University of Utah. He says what's happening in Palm Beach County is an object lesson in the pitfalls of any voting system, paper or electronic.
Dr. HALL: Often, it is a poll worker problem, or it's some sort of voter education problem, or it's a procedural problem. It's not the machine or the ballot itself, it's this interaction between people, processes, and technology.
FESSLER: And often, he says, it's something unexpected, like thousands of absentee ballots already cast in Georgia that will have to be hand-copied because of a misprint. Voting-rights advocates are also worried about continued problems with touch-screen voting machines. Although on the decline, this equipment will be used by about a third of the electorate. Larry Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU says many states still don't have enough paper ballots on hand if something goes wrong.
Prof. LARRY NORDEN (Brennan Center for Justice, New York University): 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.
FESSLER: And that could be a big problem if, as expected, there are large crowds on November 4th. That's not to mention mysterious voting machine glitches, such as inconsistent counts or disappearing votes. Such discrepancies are usually resolved, but Thad Hall says they could be crucial if the vote is close. Still, he's optimistic.
Dr. HALL: 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.
FESSLER: Which appeared to be the attitude last week in Palm Beach County, where Marcela Taylor (ph) was eager to cast an early ballot, although she says she swore she'd never vote again after the mess in 2000.
Ms. MARCELA TAYLOR: I hope for Barack's sake that this Florida vote.
Unidentified Man: Are they going to count them this year.
FESSLER: Are they going to count them this year, asks a passerby.
Ms. TAYLOR: Yeah, I hope so. They're going to count them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. TAYLOR: Yes, that is a problem in Florida. I don't know why.
FESSLER: They laugh, but clearly, it's a question on everyone's mind. Pam Fessler, NPR News.