St. Petersburg Times Online: News of Florida

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

What a mess

Fiasco over new touch screens in South Florida, closed precincts and mangled ballots taint primary; Will Bill McBride's lead stand up?

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, STEVE BOUSQUET and CURTIS KRUEGER

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 11, 2002


Fiasco over new touch screens in South Florida, closed precincts and mangled ballots taint primary; Will Bill McBride's lead stand up?

Florida's rebuilt election system collapsed Tuesday in South Florida, tainting a close Democratic primary for governor and reviving images of the state that can't vote straight.

The problems were apparent before voting could even begin. Democratic candidate for governor Janet Reno showed up at a Miami-area precinct the moment polls opened at 7 a.m. and waited 20 minutes for the new voting machines to warm up. Poll workers elsewhere in Miami-Dade and Broward counties struggled to get precincts open on time and the new touch screen voting machines running, frustrating scores of other voters.

By early afternoon, Gov. Jeb Bush took an unprecedented step and ordered polls across the state to stay open an extra two hours Tuesday night.

Even that remedy wasn't fail-proof.

Several dozen precincts in Broward defiantly closed well before 9 p.m.

"They pulled it closed and screamed at me and said, "We're closed,' " said Lori Duffy, 37, a Broward resident who tried to vote at her Hollywood polling place at 7 p.m.

"People are still arriving, trying to vote," she said. "I feel terrible."

Well before the final results were in, Reno campaign officials and other interest groups talked of filing lawsuits. The situation had the makings of an electoral meltdown in a league with the infamous 2000 presidential election, which took five weeks to sort out.

"It's shameful," Bush said. "It's the responsibility of the supervisors of election to be prepared. The state put up money -- significant sums of money -- for training, for machines."

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Florida hoped to be a model for election reform, with 15 counties purchasing 33,000 touch screen voting machines and 26 counties opting for new paper ballot systems. The state's election law was rewritten, and $6-million was spent to better educate poll workers and voters.

The election came off more smoothly in the Tampa Bay area, where election supervisors in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties reported only scattered problems. Pasco County has the same touch screen system as Broward and Miami-Dade -- the iVotronic manufactured by Election Systems & Software of Omaha, Neb. But Pasco elections supervisor Kurt Browning speculated that the 12 hours of training he gave poll workers may have made the difference.

Notably, there were also few problems reported in Palm Beach County, which has the same touch screen system as Pinellas and Hillsborough -- the AVC Edge manufactured by Seqouia Voting Systems of Oakland.

Problems surfaced in other counties outside South Florida, but those were on a smaller scale or could be corrected.

Election workers in Orlando said 42 percent of Orange County's ballots would have to be counted by hand after polls closed. The ballots were tearing as they were fed through optical scanning machines, making them unreadable. The county has nearly 426,000 voters.

In Duval County, a downtown Jacksonville polling place opened 90 minutes late because poll workers didn't turn on the machines in time. Dozens of voters left without casting ballots. At another precinct in a predominantly black Jacksonville neighborhood, poll workers distributed Democratic primary ballots to both Republicans and Democrats for the first 25 minutes.

Before scope of the problem became apparent Tuesday, Florida's Republican governor framed the problem in partisan terms. Bush referred to the rival party that now has been snakebit by election foibles in two straight major elections.

"What is it with Democrats having a hard time voting -- I don't know," Bush said.

Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, shot back, saying a second election disaster had occurred on Bush's watch.

"Gov. Bush may find this amusing, but America does not," McAuliffe said. "Jeb Bush's election reform has not changed a thing. . . . He signed a bill that did not get to the root of the problem."

Asked whether the problems would result in a spate of lawsuits, Secretary of State Jim Smith, the state's top election official, said it would depend on whether the governor's race ended in a tight race.

"I am very disappointed that our two largest counties have so much difficulty," said Smith, who took over as secretary of state less than two months ago. "I have tried very hard since I've been here to be supportive, but I frankly wonder what in the hell have they been doing for two years. . . . They've had two years to get ready for this election."

He added: "Sixty-five counties have gotten it right -- not perfect -- but they got it right. Two counties have caused more embarrassment to this state."

In Miami-Dade, Reno was first in line at her precinct at a Catholic church in Kendall. She waited more than 20 minutes for her polling place to open.

"That was a pretty big red flag," said Mo Elleithee, Reno's campaign manager.

By 7:30 a.m., Gisela Salas, the assistant supervisor of elections in Miami-Dade County, was on television, pleading with voters: "Please be patient with us. This is a new system. We are aware of the problems, and we are doing everything in our power to get this resolved as quickly as possible."

But some of the problems could not be solved.

As Salas spoke, Miami-Dade voters were peeling away from the polls by the hundreds. Advocates feared that many would not return, even with the extended hours.

By 9 a.m., 68 of Miami-Dade's polling stations still had not opened, according to county Mayor Alex Penelas.

At Jordon Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City, a pro-Reno neighborhood of low-income African-Americans, voters were unable to cast ballots until nearly mid-day.

"We turned away about 450 people. It was a huge turnout," said Pam O'Riley, 41, a Reno campaign worker standing outside in the rain. "I was in tears at one point. This will definitely hurt her campaign."

In the Broward city of Dania Beach, meanwhile, poll workers shut the doors at one polling place while they struggled to get their touch screen machines started. Still unable to get them up by 8:30 a.m., they opened the doors and allowed people in the overwhelmingly Democratic precinct to vote on paper ballots. They all received ballots for the Republican primary, but no one noticed until an hour later.

By then, many voters had left. A poll worker said the paper ballots would not be counted, but there was no way for anyone to know which voters had been disenfranchised.

In Miami, at Miller Dawkins Swimming Complex, voting was delayed 75 minutes by a problem with one of the eight computer machines.

"One of our machines took 23 minutes to start up. The bells started ringing and the screen went black," said Mary Burney, the precinct manager.

"Easily four dozen people were turned away," said Emily Millay Haddad, 21, a campaign worker. "They were rather unhappy, let's put it that way."

Some of those unable to vote in the morning returned several times before being able to cast their ballots in the afternoon.

"I was here at 8:30, and they told me the computers were down," said Branley McCartney, 60, who made two trips to the precinct in his wheelchair, including four bus rides, in order to cast his vote for Reno.

A Korean War veteran recovering from a fractured hip, he said the problems weren't going to deny him the right to vote. But others, it appeared, were in no position or mood to return.

"People were very angry," McCartney said. "Some of them said they would return and others said they wouldn't."

An assortment of other problems arose as well.

In some Broward precincts, the computer screen for the governor's race did not come up. Voters did not report the problem until after they cast their ballot, meaning they never got a chance to vote in the race, said Elliott Mincberg, vice president and general counsel of Election Protection, one of several advocacy groups monitoring the election along with the U.S. Justice Department.

In other instances, according to advocacy groups, some voters were improperly turned away when they could not present a photo I.D. State law allows any registered voter to cast a ballot when they show up without an I.D., simply by filling out an affidavit.

The blame for the breakdown quickly focused on Miriam Oliphant, a Democrat and a rookie supervisor of elections in Broward County, and David Leahy, the veteran elections supervisor in Miami-Dade.

Leahy had openly predicted some problems in recent weeks, though not on the scale seen Tuesday. Oliphant, in contrast, kept assuring her critics that everything was fine, even as hints of chaos emerged in her election preparations. She had a prickly response to fellow public officials who questioned her in recent weeks, calling them liars. She was elected to office in 2000 as Broward's first new supervisor of elections since 1968.

Poll worker problems are nothing new in the elections business. Officials complain of the problems inherent in hiring a massive temporary workforce of low-paid employees who perform once every two years.

That, mixed with the introduction of new technology, may have conspired to create Tuesday's havoc. Also playing a role was Florida's compressed time for change. Many counties did not receive their new systems until spring. That was followed by the redistricting process, which changed jurisdictional boundaries and resulted in new polling places for an estimated 30 percent of Florida voters.

All of it left relatively little time for poll worker training.


-- Times staff writers David Adams, Lucy Morgan, Julie Hauserman and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.