Warm Southern Breeze

"… there is no such thing as nothing."

Tiny printing problem on ballots causes small stir in Mobile, Alabama -or- The Benefits of Optical Scanner Ballots

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Thursday, March 15, 2012

{UPDATE 3/15/12: I modified the title of this entry, because I believe it more accurately reflects what I wish to express in sharing this entry, that…} While no balloting system is perfect, Alabama‘s system – the Optech Eagle 2000 optical scanner – is the best I’ve ever seen or used. Having been an election official in numerous elections throughout the state where the system is implemented (and the system is implemented state wide), I have never seen, nor heard of any failures or inability of ballots to be counted.

The beauty of that system is that even if electricity or the machines fail, ballots are able to be securely cast by voters, because they’re deposited in a securely locked box to which the ballot counting machine is attached. And even if there were no machines to function at all, ballots could be counted and voter intent determined by manual examination of the ballots. Voters can even request a new ballot if they cast their ballot in error, or change their mind. The “glitch” described in this story – while exceedingly rare – in no way detracted from the ability of votes to be counted, or voter intent determined.

With electronic balloting however, if a machine fails or electrical power fails, there’s no way for voters to cast their ballots. As well, electronic algorithms and computer code can be hacked. And security breaches of such code continues to be problematic. Further, if a voter casts a ballot in error, voters cannot change their vote with electronic balloting.

Mobile County ballot problems caused by tiny printing error


A small printing error on some Mobile County ballots forced poll workers to count thousands by hand late Tuesday.

Published: Wednesday, March 14, 2012, 6:00 PM     Updated: Wednesday, March 14, 2012, 6:06 PM

Katherine Sayre, Press-Register By Katherine Sayre, Press-Register
MOBILE, Alabama — A printing mistake on some Mobile County ballots in Tuesday’s election caused electronic voting machines to reject them — forcing poll workers to count roughly 3,000 ballots by hand into the early morning hours, Probate Court officials said today.

“This little white dot,” said Probate Judge Don Davis, pointing to a white, donut-shaped mark barely one-tenth of an inch wide.

The tiny error, though, ended up in an important spot, on the security markings that let the electronic machines know whether to count it. The markings look like a bar code stretching along the side of the ballot.

The faulty marks appeared only on Republican primary ballots for precincts within the contested Mobile County Commission District 3. Not all of the District 3 ballots were affected, officials said. Poll workers at 12 precincts on Tuesday noticed that machines were rejecting some ballots as they were scanned in.

Probate Court staff, poll workers and Mobile County Sheriff’s deputies worked until 4 a.m. today counting thousands of ballots by hand after the emergency plan was implemented, officials said.

Davis said that his office began to investigate the issue later that day. One administrator had noticed the white mark late Tuesday evening, after the hand-counting had already begun.

This morning, Probate Court workers simply filled in the white mark with black ink, and the ballots were then accepted and counted by the machines, he said.

Even though it took all night, Davis said, “every ballot is secure.. . and every ballot was counted.”

Interstate Printing & Graphics of Mobile was paid $150,000 for the ballots and all of the office supplies and signs used at the polls, according to Probate Court officials.

Roxann Dyess, Mobile County election coordinator, said the printing company determined that the error was caused by “paper trash” on the printers. She said small pieces of paper end up in the presses, and that debris is supposed to be removed periodically.

In this case, debris kept a tiny bit of blank ink from reaching the paper.


Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis describes how a tiny printing mark on some ballot forms caused problems with electronic scanners resulting in the hand-counting of ballots in several Mobile County precincts.

Davis said the backup plan for counting ballots by hand was implemented without any problems. “We want the public to know there was no breach in the integrity of the election system,” he said.

The current voting system was implemented in 2006.

Davis said as soon as a problem was detected on Tuesday, he called for more voting machines, but workers were able to determine that the machines were working properly. It was solely a problem with the ballots.

Davis said that one week before the election, Probate Court tested all of the machines with their precinct-specific ballots, but no problems were detected.

He said he’s still considering how Probate Court’s operations could be changed to prevent a future problem like this, but it isn’t immediately clear what could have been done differently.

Ballots from 12 polling stations were counted by hand:

  • Murphy High School and Sage Avenue Baptist Church in Mobile’s Midtown neighborhood
  • Tanner Williams Historical Society in Wilmer
  • Creekwood Church of Christ and Friendship Baptist Church in west Mobile
  • First Independent Methodist Church and Travis Road Baptist Church in the Tillman’s Corner area
  • Odd Fellows Lodge, Cypress Shores Baptist Church, St. Elmo Elementary School, Paland Grand Bay Middle School in south Mobile County.

There are nearly 33,000 registered voters in those 12 precincts, but voter turnout on Tuesday hovered around 21 percent.



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