During the 2000 election, Palm Beach, Fla., resident Sandy Blank watched, horrified, as her county became a mess of butterfly ballots, hanging chads, erroneous votes for Pat Buchanan—and a national punch line. (The Onion rechristened the state "Flori-duh.") The voting disaster inspired civic activism: Blank become a Palm Beach poll worker. "I wanted to change things," she says. Instead, six weeks before the presidential election, the situation there is as messy as ever, and a botched primary in late August only underscored the threat of another calamity. In that primary, roughly 3,500 votes went missing; then, after an audit, there were more ballots than voters, which should be impossible. But this is Palm Beach. "It's a crisis of confidence," says Blank, reporting a paltry 3 percent turnout at her polling station.
Voting-technology experts say that Palm Beach represents a checklist of how not to run elections. The county—with an assist from the state government—responded to the 2000 election in precisely the wrong way: by repeatedly switching voting machines rather than settling on one type and training people on it. "Switching technology is the fun, shiny stuff, but it's pointless," says Thad Hall, author of "Electronic Elections." "You need to focus on the procedures." On Nov. 4, however, Palm Beach will use its third system in three presidential elections. Most systems have similar accuracy rates, and the touchscreens that Palm Beach used in 2004 worked fine—but those were scrapped because of a new state law requiring paper ballots. "It's a lot to ask us and the voters to keep switching," says Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty. That law prompted another potential gaffe: the ballot design that Palm Beach settled on for 2008. Design experts recommend simple, familiar "fill in the oval" ballots; Palm Beach is going with "complete the arrow" ballots, where voters draw a line to finish an arrow next to candidates' names. Research shows error rates with "arrow" ballots are about 33 percent higher than those with "oval" ballots.
Palm Beach officials are expecting at least 500,000 voters on Nov. 4 and are redoubling efforts to prepare, convening a special task force. The state is on their case, too: Florida Secretary of State Kurt S. Browning is planning on weekly conference calls with Palm Beach's election supervisor. Running a smooth election, says Browning, "is not rocket science." In Palm Beach, apparently, it's even harder.