By MAURICE TAMMAN
Article published Mar 4, 2006
With just days before elections, state officials were scrambling this week to determine whether they had a problem that could call into question tens of thousands of absentee votes.
The problem surfaced in the state's newly minted central voter database, a multimillion-dollar project that is supposed to cleanse the voter rolls of errors and prevent voter fraud.
The Herald-Tribune on Wednesday found thousands of mysterious entries in the tally of historic votes that suggested people had already voted in elections that haven't yet occurred.
The revelation launched a furious review by state election officials who worried that the entries could make it appear as though legitimate voters were trying to vote twice. [bold emphasis added by WheresThePaper.org]
They now say that won't happen.
"This is not a problem," division spokeswoman Jenny Nash said late Friday afternoon. "There will not be a problem."
The local elections Tuesday will be the first real test of the centralized voter system since it was activated in January.
The central database has been years in the making and has been plagued by problems. The database provides a central warehouse that for the first time records all registered voters at the state level. The database also tracks each time a person in the state votes in an election.
By centralizing a process that had been handled by individual counties, the state hopes to prevent double voting and voting by people who aren't eligible.
There are local elections scheduled in 14 Florida counties in the coming weeks. For those elections, 23,000 absentee ballots had been recorded in a way that at first made it appear the ballots had been cast.
If there is a problem, it will be particularly acute in a handful of counties: According to the state's January data, there were 7,750 absentee ballot requests in Collier County at the end of January; 3,883 in Escambia County; 3,028 in Okaloosa; and 2,342 in Pinellas County.
Locally, there were only 80 absentee ballot requests in Manatee County for an election on Longboat Key but about 3,000 for the November general election.
Sarasota and Charlotte did not have any future ballots marked in the system.
In total, there were 41,718 absentee ballot records in the data from 27 counties for elections this year, including about 19,000 for the November 2006 general election.
The suspicious entries occurred when voters requested an absentee ballot. The requests were recorded under the voter's name in the central database in a way that has traditionally only been used to mark when a ballot has actually been cast.
The method was only employed by VR Systems, a private software company used by 60 of the state's 67 county election supervisors. It was done without the state's knowledge.
On Wednesday, Sandy Brill, the architect of Florida's Division of Elections system, worried that the entries would cause real ballots starting Tuesday to be flagged as possible double votes.
Brill now says the entries are just "placeholders" for absentee votes and will be replaced when the real ballots are counted.
It would not, he promised Friday, cause any absentee ballots to be rejected or questioned.
Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Bob Sweat said he doesn't understand why VR Systems is placing absentee ballot requests into a computer file reserved for voter history.
"The voter history is who voted in what election -- in the past -- that's what history is," he said.
The confusion led Sweat to spend several hours in his computer department making sure his Longboat Key election on March 14 won't be affected.
"I've double-checked everything," he said.
He said there have been several small glitches since the state's new centralized voting system launched in January.
"There are updates constantly," he said. "I think there have been learning curves for VR and the state. I know there has been for me. About all I'm really confident of, is with what we're doing here."
Bradenton resident Lorraine Aguanno didn't really understand how her name showed up on the list. She has requested an absentee ballot for the November general election and was entertained by the idea that it might look like she has already voted.
"The last time we voted was in the general election -- for president," she said. "I'm wondering, who is running" in November?
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