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A sigh to behold: Problems down, turnout soars

JONI JAMES, LUCY MORGAN and CRAIG PITTMAN
Published November 3, 2004

A near record number of Floridians flocked to the polls Tuesday in an election that brought scattered reports of voting machine glitches but appeared to avoid the widespread problems that characterized the 2000 presidential race.

"I don't think you'll be seeing us on the national news as the laughingstock of the country," said Miami-Dade Commission chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler.

The huge turnout and lengthy ballots combined to produce waits of an hour or more. But the threat of massive voter challenges by hundreds of Republican poll watchers appeared to fizzle amid reports that scores of Democratic lawyers from other states were swooping into Florida.

Federal Election Assistance Commission chairman DeForest Soaries, who spent Monday and Tuesday touring Florida polling sites, proclaimed the state's election "a flagship for democratic electoral success."

Election officials in the Tampa Bay area said the day went smoothly. Thousands of voters stood in lines for hours from Citrus to Pinellas, and in one Pinellas precinct 14 people were still waiting to vote at 9:45 p.m., nearly three hours after the polls were scheduled to close.

One of the most persistent voting problems around the state involved the touch-screen voting machines adopted by 15 counties to replace the punch card machines blamed for some of Florida's electoral woes four years ago.

In at least three precincts in Pinellas County, as well as in precincts in Palm Beach and Broward counties, voters who tried to cast their ballot for John Kerry for president said their machines registered it as a vote for President Bush. Some said the machine repeatedly got their vote wrong before finally registering their choice correctly.

Sometimes it went the other way. A St. Petersburg voter, Carole Krayer, said she pressed the Bush circle repeatedly only to see it open up, then pop down to Kerry. Her vote for Republican Senate candidate Mel Martinez popped down to Democrat Betty Castor.

A poll worker blamed her long fingernails, saying she must be hitting the wrong candidate with the pad of her finger.

"So I used my knuckle and hit the center of the circle and it flipped to Kerry," Krayer said. She tried using a pencil eraser, with the same results.

Finally the poll worker moved her to another machine and she successfully cast her ballot for Bush and Martinez. "This does not sound like a software problem," said Ted Selker, co-director of the Cal Tech/MIT Voting Technology Project.

He said either voters touched the wrong choice or the machines were not calibrated right, meaning the button for selecting a candidate wasn't lined up properly with the candidate's name.

Vergia Virgil, 54, of Boynton Beach had to try twice to get her vote for Kerry to register. When asked if she might have accidentally pressed Bush the first time, Virgil didn't hesitate.

"Oh no, no, no, no," she said. "It was no accident. I know who I pushed."

Ballot questions

Provisional ballots, another reform approved by the Legislature after the 2000 election wound up in a welter of lawsuits, were cast by thousands of first-time voters whose eligibility was in question.

Although exact numbers were hard to come by Tuesday night, the most provisional ballots appeared to be cast in Orange County, with 1,200. County elections officials attributed the number in part to the transient nature of Central Florida's population.

In several counties, election officials tossed out hundreds of absentee ballots because they lacked a valid signature.

Broward County ranked first in the nation for calls about election complaints, according to the nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause, which set up a hotline to field voter questions and comments.

By 11 a.m., more than 5,200 Broward County voters had called in, though the vast majority of those callers were able to vote, said Ben Wilcox, executive director of the group's Florida office.

"This has been election administration problems, such as rude poll workers and people not being helpful," Wilcox said. Questions about absentee ballots and polling places were the most common, Wilcox said.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit over absentee ballots, arguing that ballots mailed by Florida elections supervisors too late for possibly thousands of voters to return them on time should still count.

The suit was filed against Secretary of State Glenda Hood and elections supervisors in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. It asks for the validation of completed absentee ballots mailed in the United States that arrive at county offices before Nov. 12. State law required those ballots to reach county offices by Tuesday night.

The Nov. 12 deadline would be the same standard applied to absentee ballots filed by voters who are out of the country.

"These are not people who filed their request for an absentee ballot late," Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said. "These are people who filed it well in advance of the deadline and some of them just got their absentee ballot today - effectively preventing them from participating in today's election."

Election relief

Florida officials were breathing a big sigh of relief that they were unlikely to see a replay of 2000, when the Florida recount lasted 36 days.

"There's been a very big smelly monkey on our back for four years," said U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla. "I am tired of Florida being the laughingstock of America."

There were concerns that changes the Legislature and elections officials made after 2000 did not go far enough, and that the four hurricanes that forced the relocation of 100 precincts, would combine with the rancor between the parties to create yet another Florida fiasco.

But Tuesday's election went so smoothly that even filmmaker Michael Moore, who opened his anti-Bush movie Fahrenheit 9/11 with scenes of Florida's 2000 debacle, proclaimed Florida's voting relatively problem-free. Moore had brought his cameras back to Florida to document another disaster, but said he was leaving early.

"There are reports of voter abuse, harassment, fraud, but they are minimal at best and we're feeling the things are going okay so far," Moore said outside state election headquarters. "The lines are very long, there are not enough voting machines. But that's the major complaint, and we're worried about Ohio so we're going to head up there."

Both parties and a variety of groups such as the Sierra Club dispatched monitors to precincts all over the state in anticipation of another Florida recount. Some wound up with little to do.

Times staff writers Paul de la Garza, David Karp, David Adams, Alisa Ulferts, Michael Van Sickler, Stephen Hegarty and Matthew Waite contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated Press.

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