Politics
12:00 am
Fri August 10, 2012

Elections in Palm Beach County: The “Butterfly Ballot” Effect

Throughout every election cycle, it’s fair to say that there’s more nail-biting in Palm Beach County than in any voting district in the country. For nearly 12 years, a reputation for botched elections has clung to the county like a hanging chad.

And it appears that bad rep has gone global.

During a good will trip to Japan this past February, Delray Beach Mayor Woodie McDuffie met the Mayor of Kyoto. Upon hearing that McDuffie was from Palm Beach County, the Japanese official said through a translator, “That’s where people can’t count.”

Ouch.

McDuffie says he had a laugh over the remark, but . . .

 “ . . . It’s one of those things where you look – if you’re an economic development director – you look at it and say . . . ummm . . . I wish we didn’t have that stigma hanging around.” 

The Mayor of Kyoto was referring, of course, to the 2000 Presidential Election and subsequent ballot recount in Florida. One of the major culprits in the debacle was the punch-card style ballot Palm Beach County was using at the time. And virtually overnight, the county became synonymous with pregnant chads and butterfly ballots.

Among many Palm Beach County voters, the passage of time seems to have taken the sting out of the wise-cracks.

60-year-old Mike Colman of Boca Raton has kept a sample butterfly ballot from 2000 as a souvenir.  “I was in Jacksonville Beach at the time,” recalls Colman.  “And later on in the evening I watched the election returns come in. And Florida was called to be for Gore and then it was un-called. And then we had our 35 or 40 days of craziness. I was rapt attention. “

Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher has been in office just short of four years. She says she understood going in that the county would be closely watched by the media during elections.

“Since the year 2000, we’ve attracted a lot of attention,”says Bucher. “And in every election cycle, we see a large volume of media coming here. We’re all about transparency. We welcome the scrutiny because we believe that we can stand up to that scrutiny.”

And yet, Palm Beach County has been plagued by a number of election snafus in the last 12 years. In 2008, thousands of ballots initially went missing in a judicial election. Nearly two years ago, the returns for the closely-watched Governor’s race came in late. And earlier this year, a Wellington election that certified the wrong winners sparked a recount. 

But Florida Atlantic University political science Professor Kevin Wagner says other voting districts nationwide have had their share of problems, too.

“There were huge mistakes in Iowa during one of our election cycles, says Wagner. “There were mistakes that happen in the Rust Belt fairly regularly. There are mistakes in other parts of Florida.  But because Palm Beach County in particular was ground zero for a lot of the controversies during the 2000 election, they get a lot more focus for what they do and what they don’t do.”

McDuffie says a string of problem-free elections would help Palm Beach County get out from under the glare: 

“We’ve built a reputation of error in Palm Beach County when it comes to elections, says McDuffie.

“That’s why we’re on everyone’s watchlist. And we make a mistake and it’s like ‘Oh, It’s Palm Beach County again!’ ”