Votes aren't the only things that haven't easily added up in Palm Beach County this election cycle. Neither have the South Florida county’s decisions to spend election-integrity funds on civic coloring books and iPads rather than on fixing voting machines that officials have long called a problem.
The same machines officials are blaming for delays in the recount of the Nov. 6 election were also blamed for problems in 2008 and 2012.
“It became evident through the vigorous pace of counting that the machines used for the recount were starting to get stressed,” Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher told reporters last week.
In a further twist, the company behind the Palm Beach machines says official claims that they overheated are false. “The idea that this equipment is at fault is a mischaracterization,” Kay Stimson, vice president of government affairs for Dominion Voting Systems, told RealClearInvestigations. “There were no reports of overheating machines during the recount. We had engineers on the ground there, available 24/7, and they heard nothing from anyone at Palm Beach County.”
Three statewide races – for governor, U.S. senator and agriculture commissioner – were close enough to require a statewide recount this year. Because of vote-counting problems, Palm Beach election workers were forced to miss the Thursday deadline for recounting votes. A circuit judge extended the count to this Tuesday, although remaining doubts over the winners appeared to have been settled over the weekend.
The counting controversy in Palm Beach seems certain to endure, however.
Problems have occurred despite federal election security funding that the county has been given to keep voting systems running correctly -- part of the millions doled out to states under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, or HAVA.
Records show Palm Beach County this year used its $909,000 share of HAVA funds to buy iPads for voters to check in at the polls. A 2009 audit of the county’s elections department found the agency improperly spent $48,000 in HAVA money on coloring books.
Bucher has asked commissioners for an $11.1 million system to replace the current one. She has said the equipment hasn’t been ordered yet because she wants to make sure it complies with a state accessibility standard that allows people with disabilities to vote more easily. Numerous other counties have equipment that meets the standard.
Bucher did not respond to an email from RealClearInvestigations seeking comment.
The county’s eight voting machines that reportedly went on the fritz while recounting ballots from this month's election were purchased in a no-bid deal in 2008 from Sequoia Voting Systems for $5.5 million.
In 2012, the machines miscounted a race in Wellington Village, mistakenly calculating victories for two candidates who did not actually win. In that case, Bucher blamed Dominion Voting, which purchased Sequoia in 2010, for failing to advise her of a software update. Dominion disputed her claim.
Even before Bucher took office in January 2009, the machines were presenting problems. In 2008, the county’s optical-scan machines produced conflicting results for the same batch of ballots in a circuit judge primary. Experts framed that snafu as a combination of administrative failure and puzzling technological glitches.
“All these issues are probably a combination of [technical and user] mistakes,” said Gerald Richman, a veteran elections lawyer who represented Democrats in Florida during the 2000 presidential election recount. “It’s hard to say why Florida is always involved in this, other than we have a lot of close races and a lousy voting system.”
The state approved the version of the software used in the Palm Beach machines in 2015. Palm Beach County is the only one in Florida using that particular system, although several other counties use Sequoia equipment.
What’s unclear is if the machines are simply old or in need of a software update.
Disputing claims that Dominion machines failed in this year’s election, Stimson said her company “shipped motors to Palm Beach County the weekend before the machines were to be used for the recount, knowing that this was going to be a highly unusual situation and there would be stress far beyond normal usage. Those motors,” she said, “are still in their boxes.”
Florida received $19 million in HAVA funds in early summer. In its letter requesting the funding, Florida Secretary of State Kenneth Detzner said the state has, at the direction of Gov. Rick Scott, worked with local elections supervisors to modernize voting equipment.
“More than two-thirds of Florida counties have completed a voting equipment modernization and the majority of the remaining counties are in the process,” Detzner wrote. Florida was also one of seven states that did not file a planned expenditure form, specifying how it intended to spend its share of HAVA funding.
Stimson, the Dominion official, said the company has been trying to contact Bucher but has gotten no response.
“We have reached out to them to get clarification of this information that they have made public and their claims and have not heard back,” Stimson said.