Can South Florida get it right?
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
FORT LAUDERDALE -- Swamped but confident, South Florida officials predicted earlier this week that Tuesday's general election would be free of the disasters that plagued September's primary.
They had trained thousands of poll workers, set up command posts and organized teams to respond at the first hint of trouble in precincts in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
But Friday, South Florida took another sharp U-turn into the surreal world of November 2000.
Democrats said voters are sure to be disenfranchised on Tuesday, the victims of long lines at the polls and of Republicans who threatened to disrupt voting.
Republicans said everything was fine, perfectly legal.
Democrats filed and won one lawsuit. Another one appears to be on the way.
"People have no idea what it is like getting ready for an election," said Secretary of State Jim Smith, commenting on Friday's many developments. "It's like getting ready for a war."
And in an aside that does not bode well for the cleanly executed election Floridians had hoped for, Smith referred to the hundreds of lawyers from both parties who are poised to participate in pre- and post-Nov. 5 court battles.
"We're going to be litigating everything," the state's top election official said.
Among the developments:
Democratic Reps. Peter Deutsch and Alcee Hastings, both of Broward County, pushed state and federal officials Friday to take emergency action, saying thousands would be forced to wait one or two hours at the polls.
An expected high turnout, a massive ballot with more than 40 items, and too few touch screen voting machines were the culprits, they said, citing the 45- to 90-minute waits this week at early voting centers. They asked the state Division of Elections to allow the use of paper ballots to supplement the machines, but Smith said that was not possible under state law. Deutsch called Smith's response insensitive and said a lawsuit was "clearly an option."
Miriam Oliphant, the embattled Broward elections supervisor, also cited the long lines and suggested in a letter to Gov. Jeb Bush that he extend polling hours on Tuesday, as he did on Sept. 10.
Campaigning in North Florida, Bush said: "We're just not going to extend the voting hours." The lines were expected, given the length of the ballot, he said. "That's democracy."
Bush also acknowledged the sensitivity of the situation, being asked as the state's chief executive to make a decision that could hurt him at the polls but leave him open to charges of partisan tampering. Ordering an extension of the poll hours in heavily Democratic Broward would aid his opponent, Bill McBride . "It would put me in a difficult position, no question about it," Bush said.
Under state law, anyone in line at 7 p.m., when the polls are scheduled to close, will be allowed to vote.
In Miami, meanwhile, Democrats took Republicans to court over a GOP political action committee called the Emergency Campaign to Stop Bill McBride . The group had gotten permission to put poll watchers in 450 of Miami-Dade County's 553 polling places.
Poll watchers have long served a legitimate purpose in elections for both parties, observing voting conditions and keeping track of turnout. But Democrats noted that the law also allows them to challenge any person's eligibility to vote, and they feared the loosely organized group would disrupt voting in strongly Democratic precincts. A judge agreed and yanked the group's permission.
The nonprofit Center for Democracy, which is being paid $92,188 to monitor Miami-Dade's election, said the county's preparations for Tuesday were going "relatively smooth and well." However, it also cited problems, including an "unacceptable" lack of security for absentee ballots already cast and a "role reversal" that has police officials running the election instead of election officials.
The county has made a tremendous effort, the center concluded. "Whether this A for effort translates on Election Day into an A for achievement, however, will depend on several factors."
Political undercurrents drove the day's events.
A large turnout in Broward and Miami-Dade is the best hope for McBride, who trails Bush in several polls by about 8 points. In the 2000 election, Vice President Al Gore pulled even with George W. Bush on the strength of such a turnout, and Democrats are hoping for a repeat.
However, another kind of repeat is in the making: revived friction between Democrats and the Republicans who control the state elections division. In 2000, it was then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris who drew the ire of Democrats across the country for what they saw as a partisan effort to block a lawful recount. On Thursday, it was Smith's turn, having taken over from Harris this summer.
Deutsch said in an interview with the Miami Herald: "I hope he is not Katherine Harris with a tie and suit, but I am not sure he isn't."
He recounted his conversation with Smith, who rejected the paper ballot idea and, according to Deutsch, said of voters, "Let them wait."
Smith said Friday that he took "personal offense" to the Katherine Harris remark "and his implication that somehow this office is partisan."
Smith added: "I am looking forward to meeting Mr. Deutsch person-to-person. He's not going to like that exchange."
There is no authority in state law to use paper ballots to reduce waiting times at polls, the secretary said.
Deutsch's home county is an especially big prize in Tuesday's election. Heavily Democratic, Broward has the most voters of any county in Florida and a larger population than 13 states.
But it also has the state's longest ballot, with 13 county charter questions, the 10 state constitutional amendments and a full complement of candidates.
Deutsch, Hastings and others say they are worried by the math of the election.
If 55 percent of voters turn out on Tuesday, as some expect, that's an estimated 460,000 people. With voters taking 10 to 15 minutes to get through the ballot, they contend, there is no way all of them can vote in 12 hours on the county's 5,538 touch screen machines.
But Bertha Henry, the Broward County administrator in charge of the election, said Deutsch's math is flawed. The county is estimating a 50 percent turnout, she said. Officials also are subtracting the thousands of people who have voted early or with absentee ballots.
The county also has an additional 550 voting machines that it plans to deploy on Election Day in busy precincts, she said. In addition, she said, specially trained county workers will be engaged in "line management" at polling places, approaching voters in any long lines to streamline the process. They will demonstrate the county's new voting machines and offer voters sample ballots to study while they wait.
Henry said people at early voting sites are getting through the ballot in about five minutes.
She also expressed irritation at the 11th-hour concern over the long ballot.
"I find it so ironic," she said of Deutsch and Hastings. Since the county took over much of the election six weeks ago, "our message and our mantra has been exactly the same: Prepare, prepare, prepare. . . . We're wondering where the hell have people been?"
Henry and her counterparts in Miami-Dade have assembled a highly regimented workforce that they hope will put an end to the punchlines about Florida and voting.
Under intense pressure not to repeat the chaos that kept the Sept. 10 primary results in doubt for days, officials in both counties have brought more money, people and equipment to the task, along with plans to deploy them with a military-style precision.
In essence, they have elevated Tuesday's election to something that resembles the large events the region has handled before: Super Bowls, a World Series, a papal visit, the occasional riot.
County administrators and police officials have assumed leading roles while election officials -- who on Sept. 10 showed they lacked the tools to train and mobilize thousands of people -- have largely seen their jobs narrowed to counting votes.
The makeover has caused many to conclude that elections using computerized touch screens in heavily populated counties have grown too big and complex to ever again be handled by just one department.
"This is not your grandfather's election," said Miami-Dade County Manager Steve Shiver. ". . . It is a new technology and it requires new methods."
So extensive are some of the preparations that Shiver referred to them as "overkill." But he added: "We have got to set this in motion properly."'
The changes are designed to handle the problems that made Sept. 10 such a disaster.
Both counties have created a new tier of three specially trained county employees to supplement the nominally paid poll workers who usually "volunteer" for elections. Miami-Dade has trained more than 2,000 such workers and Broward about 1,200. They will handle the most technical jobs at more than 1,200 polling places spanning the two counties.
Hundreds of phone lines are being installed in both counties to solve the communication problems that plagued the Sept. 10 election. And teams of police officers and county workers will install thousands of voting machines the day before the election.
In Miami-Dade, police officers will guard the machines overnight at 553 locations.
Officials say the changes will prevent polls from opening late, as they did on Sept. 10, forcing thousands of morning voters to leave without casting a ballot.
In addition, police "trouble trucks" will be dispatched to Miami-Dade precincts at the first indication of problems.
Said Linda O'Brien, a police commander in Miami: "We are preparing for every what-if scenario we can possibly think of. . . . I think everybody in this county recognizes that we've been the butt of the jokes the last two elections, and I think we've taken this to a level that we expect it to go very, very, very well."
-- Times staff writers Julie Hauserman and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.
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