Palm Beach County had a tough 2018 election. It missed several recount deadlines after overheated machines shut down and the system couldn’t handle counting multiple races at once.
That’s in a county that already has a checkered election past. The 2018 struggles brought many a reference to 2000’s “butterfly ballot” problems with counting punch-card votes.
As 2020 approaches, the county is trying a lot of new things: new voting machines, a new voter registration system and a new supervisor of elections – attorney Wendy Link.
WLRN’s Madeline Fox sat down with Link to talk about making so many changes before a big election, and how to get everything to run smoothly this time.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
WLRN: Palm Beach County has these new voting machines, after we had some issues with the ones in the 2018 election, particularly in the recount. How do you expect these ones to work better?
LINK: For a lot of reasons. One is just that the technology is different. These are much newer, they’re 4G modems. Everything that other counties are having to upgrade to now, we bought it that way.
Also, the tabulators can count more than one race at a time, and that was one of the issues we had before.
The concern with any kind of electronic machine is can it be hacked, is it secure? So how do you look at easing concerns?
Before anything ever touches any airwaves at all, we print the paper ballot for what happened on that machine. We print two copies of it, one we post it on the door of every single precinct, and then one comes back to us. Then after those are printed, we send the results by modem – so we will be able to check the paper ballot number against what we receive [digitally].
The theme of these machines and this whole counting process seems to be redundancies and fail-safes.
There are a lot of redundancies. And there will be some things that – because it’s the first time we’re using them – that I’m taking a lot of precautions.
“They joke that there’s an electioneer’s prayer…and I say that prayer every single day”
Ideally, you wouldn’t use new machines and new voter registration in a presidential election…but it’s the situation that we are in.
We’re doing everything we can to be as prepared and to make sure. Ideally we’ll have a very smooth election, and nobody will think there’s any issues.
Given the interesting history that Palm Beach County has had with elections, is it a little bit of an easier sell to say ‘Hey, I really need an increase in my budget because we have to make a lot of fixes?’
I think so. The county had actually already allocated money for the voting machines. So I had to justify why we were choosing what we were choosing, how many we were doing and what we were doing, but it wasn’t really a matter of my going to the county saying ‘You have to give me money because I need these machines.’
Now, we have also elected to do a new voter registration system, because we didn’t want to find ourselves in the same position we’d been before where we were the only county using the old machines – we didn’t want to be the only county left on the old voter registration system.
When governor DeSantis appointed you, he said you’d serve your two-year term and not seek reelection.
Yes, that’s what I told him. I’d never held any type of a public office, and didn’t have any interest in doing that.
I have had a lot of people ask me if I’d do it again, and at this point I’m saying I don’t know, it’s a way off.
Is two years enough time to get a lot done?
Yes, we can get a lot done in two years. Can we get it all done? No.
We’re getting the new equipment, and that’s going to take us several months. This year – again, right before a presidential election – we’re converting over a million active voter files, plus all the inactive voter files, from one third party to another. We joke, ‘What could possibly go wrong?’
And then [we’re] setting up contingencies. We’re going to test it 19 ways to Sunday, but if there is an issue, what is our backup plan?
So you’re also becoming, it sounds like, an expert in risk management.
Yeah, no question about it.
My goal is that you won’t read about Palm Beach County. The only thing you’ll read is how did our elections turn out in that this is who got this many votes, and this is who got this many votes.
They joke that there’s an electioneer’s prayer, and it says something along the lines of ‘Let everyone campaign honestly and ethically, let them all be safe on the campaign trail, and when it comes time for people to cast their votes, may they be safe in doing so. And when we count them, we don’t care who wins, just let it be a landslide so that there is no recount.’ And I say that prayer every single day.