by Eliot Kleinberg
FORT LAUDERDALE — It had to happen. Things were just going too smoothly.
Early Thursday, as Broward County elections officials wrapped up after a long day of canvassing votes, something unusual caught their eye. Tallies should go up as more votes are counted. That’s simple math. But in some races, the numbers had gone . . . down.
Officials found the software used in Broward can handle only 32,000 votes per precinct. After that, the system starts counting backward.
Why a voting system would be designed to count backward was a mystery to Broward County Mayor Ilene Lieberman. She was on the phone late Wednesday with Omaha-based Elections Systems and Software.
Bad numbers showed up only in running tallies through the day, not the final one. Final tallies were reached by cross-checking machine totals, and officials are confident they are accurate.
The glitch affected only the 97,434 absentee ballots, Broward Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes said. All were placed in their own precincts and optical scanners totaled votes, which were then fed to a main computer.
That’s where the counting problems surfaced. They affected only votes for constitutional amendments 4 through 8, because they were on the only page that was exactly the same on all county absentee ballots. The same software is used in Martin and Miami-Dade counties; Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties use different companies.
The problem cropped up in the 2002 election. Lieberman said ES&S told her it had sent software upgrades to the Florida Secretary of State’s office, but that the office kept rejecting the software. The state said that’s not true. Broward elections officials said they had thought the problem was fixed.
Secretary of State spokeswoman Jenny Nash said all counties using this system had been told that such problems would occur if a precinct is set up in a way that would allow votes to get above 32,000. She said Broward should have split the absentee ballots into four separate precincts to avoid that and that a Broward elections employee since has admitted to not doing that.
But Lieberman said later, “No election employee has come to the canvassing board and made the statements that Jenny Nash said occurred.”
Late Thursday, ES&S issued a statement reiterating that it learned of the problems in 2002 and said the software upgrades would be submitted to Hood’s office next year. The company was working with the counties it serves to make sure ballots don’t exceed capacity and said no other counties reported similar problems.
“While the county bears the ultimate responsibility for programming the ballot and structuring the precincts, we . . . regret any confusion the discrepancy in early vote totals has caused,” the statement said.
After several calls to the company during the day were not returned, an ES&S spokeswoman said late Thursday she did not know whether ES&S contacted the secretary of state two years ago or whether the software is designed to count backward.
While the problem surfaced two years ago, it was under a different Br oward elections supervisor and a different secretary of state. Snipes said she had not known about the 2002 snafu.
Later, Lieberman said, “I am not passing judgments and I’m not pointing a finger.” But she said that if ES&S is found to be at fault, actions might include penalizing ES&S or even defaulting on its contract.