What happens if the ballot reading machine isn’t working?

Early morning issue at Jacksonville precinct raises questions about processing ballots

In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo a ballot-scanning machine is shown in the Miami-Dade County Elections Department in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File) (Lynne Sladky, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Several Duval County voters expressed concern Tuesday morning after a ballot-counting machine at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Center on Ionia Street failed to work for the first 40 minutes of voting.

Elections officials acknowledged the problem and said it was resolved by rebooting the machine, which has since been working correctly.

Some voters who arrived early at the precinct said they were caught off guard when, after filling out their ballots, they were unable to have them processed immediately by the ballot reader.

Voter Alice Nelson told News4Jax that a precinct manager explained the contingency plan when she asked what they were supposed to do.

“It was then explained to me that, by the book, the contingency says the individual that’s voting can take their ballot and put it in the emergency slot,” Nelson said.

Reporter Brittany Muller joins us from Robert F Kennedy Service Center in Duval County where a ballot counting machine was having an issue scanning the ballots. It has since been resolved. One voter says that she was told to come back around the time that the polls close to assure that her ballot is counted and says that this incident is an example of voter suppression.

Duval County Supervisor of Elections Mike Hogan said that if a machine is not feeding, the voter has to put the ballot into the emergency slot on the machine, which drops it into a separate locked compartment that will then be opened at the end of the voting and fed into the machine by poll workers after the polls have closed.

He said that because voting has to continue throughout the day, the locked emergency bin can’t be opened to run those ballots until after polls have closed.

But he said voters who had to leave a ballot in an emergency box are invited to come back and watch all the ballots from the box as they are run through the machine.

Nelson said she would be returning to watch the ballots be processed but that she was still skeptical because she has no way of knowing which of the ballots was hers.

“As far as I’m concerned, my ballot could have been put into the garbage can,” Nelson said.

Hogan admitted that it’s not an ideal option and apologized for the situation.

“It’s very inconvenient (for the voter). It’s not something that we like to have, but it’s just our only option to protect the voter and to protect the system as it relates to ending on time, beginning on time. We’ve got to keep them voting during the day,” Hogan said. “They’ve still put it in the tabulator, it just hasn’t been counted. It’s going to be counted. We are very sorry about that.”

Melanie Lawson joins us from the Duval County Supervisor of Elections office. Supervisor of Elections in Duval, Mike Hogan joins us to answer questions voters' have after issues at the polls were reported.

Hogan said all the machines were tested before the election, but that because they are electronic, failures can happen, typically related to power issues.

Some voters, however, felt that the “inconvenience” felt more like voter suppression.

Voter Arrices Merriweather said he fought for 13 years to have his voting rights restored after being released from prison in 2007. He said Tuesday’s malfunction raised suspicions.

“Fighting the state for me to get my voter registration back, get my rights back and come here vote and be submitted to this type of injustice. … I got to come and make sure my vote counted,” Merriweather said. “It was a form that they were trying to discourage us in a way where you have to sit here and wait until they’re going to get a machine and bring it back.”

Merriweather said he, too, would be returning to the precinct after polls close to watch the ballots from the lock box be fed through the machine.

Hogan said he understands the skepticism, particularly because Florida protects ballot secrecy and there’s no way to know once your ballot is in the box which one it was. But, he said, that’s why his office works diligently to make sure there is party diversity among the poll workers at every precinct.

“That’s one of our most important features is that we have diversity in each precinct,” Hogan said. “That’s the beauty of having diversity out there. There’s not going to be any cheating if you’ve got a Democrat and a Republican in the same room. They’re going to be protecting everything, as you can imagine.”

About the Authors:

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.

Multi-media journalist with a special interest in Georgia issues.