Just days prior to the primary election in Florida, a legal opinion was issued which disallows observers from being present when the final votes are tallied. According to the Herald Tribune “[t]he closure comes because of questions posed by Sarasota County Election Supervisor Kathy Dent, whose controversial District 13 congressional race drew national scrutiny in 2006.”
Based on this ruling, election observers can be restricted from central computer rooms while votes are being tallied. Also, the public and observers may be prohibited from viewing the certification of votes by the canvassing boards, as long as an alternative, such as loudspeakers to listen in on the canvassing, is provided. Already at least one election observer has been barred from witnessing the vote tally.
Ms. Dent claims she merely sought "clarification and edification" of rules for election workers; she asserts that she has no need or desire to limit scrutiny of the vote counting procedures. In fact, according to the article Ms. Dent “opened her computing room to a handful of observers” for Tuesday’s primary. Observers apparently witnessed modem connection failures and failure to transfer votes electronically leading to manual input.
For those supporting this ruling, primarily it seems Election Supervisors, they cite to the fact that rooms do not really allow for a large number of people, and other valuables and keys are kept in the room which cannot be adequately watched while votes are being tallied. Finally, the issue of trade secrets comes into play as there is allegedly a risk of some of the “observers” gaining entry in order to provide this information to competitors.
Lead counsel of the Florida Democratic Party has already suggested that litigation may be necessary to challenge this ruling. At the least, it has been indicated that talks will be held with the state in order to attempt to reverse this ruling or come to some acceptable middle ground.
Florida, much like Ohio, has been the subject of concern during election season. Since the “hanging chad” incident and the undervote issue which occurred last election in Ms. Dent’s precinct, voter faith in Florida’s election procedure, both inside and outside of the state, has apparently been shaken. This latest decision would seem to shake voter confidence even further. As Florida election law expert Mark Herron is quoted in the article, “"Anytime you move something behind the curtain, people are going to get suspicious”.
Aside from voters’ perceptions, Ms. Dent’s opening of her computer room presents concrete reasoning for why observers should be allowed. With computer errors such as those experienced Tuesday leading to manual input, which is subject to greater threats of error, there are issues that need to be observed and reported upon in order to ensure that no errors actually exist and that any problems are fixed for future elections. I would doubt that the provision of loudspeakers so observers could listen in would not have necessarily provided an accurate picture of the troubles suffered, nor of the manner in overcoming these problems. While issues of security need to be dealt with, it is also necessary to ensure that votes are accurately tallied and recorded.