Florida falls flat when it comes to rules for tracking paper ballots after …

As the white-hot presidential contest heats up in this battleground state, a newly released national voting equipment study gives Florida passing marks — except for one glaring exception.

Aside from using paper ballots, the ability to recount those ballots is the single most important means to ensure a fair election, many experts say, and Florida falls flat.

At stake are the ballots of 11.4 million Florida voters and 29 electoral votes, more than enough to decide a tight election. After all, the 326-page report written by nonprofit advocacy groups Common Cause and the Verified Voting Foundation, as well as Rutgers Law School’s Constitutional Litigation Clinic, points out that George W. Bush won Florida in 2000 by a mere 537 votes.

Florida’s myriad voting systems are ranked “generally good” by the report — the rough equivalent of a “C” — in part because the state mandates the use of paper ballots for everyone except some disabled voters. Martin County’s touch screen equipment and St. Lucie and Indian River county’s optical scan machines all produce paper ballots, officials confirmed.

But Florida’s rules for tracking those paper ballots after an election come up short, the report concluded, and that’s key, given the fact that virtually all elections systems have demonstrated some type of technological failure.

“We all know computers crash,” said Susannah Goodman, director of Common Cause’s Voter Integrity Campaign. “Voting machines are no different.”

For instance, the March Wellington election was among troubling incidents cited by the report. There, a software system implicated in four problems in as many years — including double-counting of more than 10,000 votes in 2008 in Indian River County — miscounted votes in the mayoral and two city council races. Months before the county agreed to buy it, security experts blasted an earlier version of Sequoia Voting Systems’ equipment, now operating as Dominion Voting Systems, as riddled with bugs that jeopardized votes.

Local election officials say Martin, St. Lucie counties have not experienced technology mishaps cited in the report, and Indian River has taken steps to avoid the 2008 equipment glitch that produced a skewed vote count.

Indian River Supervisor of Elections Leslie Swan said in hindsight, because it was the first time the county was using their new optical scan equipment — identical to what Palm Beach County uses — her former boss Kay Clem should have pretested the system.

“But you think that it’s approved by the state and it goes through rigorous testing,” Swan said, “that you assume that it’s going to operate the way you think it is.”

Problems in Wellington were caught by a routine audit, a hand-count that won praise from the report’s authors. However, recounts are sharply restricted by state law: County elections supervisors can examine only a tiny slice of ballots after an election — typically no more than 2 percent of precincts.

Worse, audits are allowed only after the winners are declared.

“It closes the door after the horses have left the barn,” said Dan McCrae, president of the nonprofit Florida Voters Foundation and an analyst for Verified Voting.

St. Lucie County elections supervisor Walker said current rules for auditing elections should change.

“I feel like the Wellington election just exemplified so much of the importance of the audit being done before the election was actually certified,” she said. “I do agree we have an extremely tight time crunch to certify an election, but it’s all laws, and laws can be changed to accommodate the thorough process necessary to ensure the system is working and that … every vote is counted properly.”

Florida law further states postelection audits can involve only one randomly selected race. So if there are four county commission races, only one race can be audited. Elections officials could wind up choosing a race that had no problems, while missing a race with suspect vote totals. State law on audits “is really crippled,” said Philip Stark, professor of statistics at the University of California-Berkeley.

Walker though, while urging changes to rules that govern auditing elections, defended Florida’s election process, and insisted that blatant voting errors will be timely caught and corrected.

“Nobody is going to say ‘now wait a minute, the candidates have already been certified, and so they have to stay in office,'” she said. “That’s not what happened in Wellington.”

Although some states fared worse than Florida in the report’s rankings — Louisiana, Delaware, Colorado, Mississippi, Kansas and South Carolina got the lowest marks — no state got an overall rating of excellent.

And no state should believe itself immune from potential election equipment problems once elections officials fire up the computers: “It’s Murphy’s Law,” said Pamela Smith, president of the Verified Voting Foundation. “Some things are unavoidable.”

Still, Vicki Davis, Martin County supervisor of elections, said rigorous pretesting of the county’s touch screen voting equipment, which is mandated by law, is key to ballot accuracy.

“Supervisors and staff just need to be very aware of how they are testing their equipment … there are adjustments that can take place to help alleviate what occurred with the Wellington elections,” she said. “If those adjustments are made in the pretesting and the public testing then there should not be an issue.”

Palm Beach Post writers Pat Beall and Adam Playford contributed to this report.