Minor machine malfunctions, human mistake surface in Florida polling places

Tuesday, November 4, 2008 | 10:37 a.m. CST; updated 11:39 a.m. CST, Tuesday, November 4, 2008

MIAMI — Florida voters experienced long lines but only a few minor glitches with equipment early Tuesday as the state tries to repair its still-sullied reputation from the 2000 recount fiasco.

Jammed optical scan machines and malfunctioning electronic signature pads were the most common complaints in the first few hours of voting. Long lines were a given in some locations, with wait times of up to two hours at precincts in the state's most populous Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Florida's voters and elections officials are trying to avoid another election meltdown during this historic election. During the 2000 presidential election, ballot design and vote counting problems led to a contentious, 36-day recount resulted in George Bush winning the state — and, therefore, the White House — by 537 votes over Al Gore.

Since 2000, voting equipment has been standardized — all of Florida's 67 counties now use optical scan machines — and early voting was introduced. This year, some 4.2 million of the state's 11.2 million registered voters cast early or absentee ballots.

Still, lines were long on Election Day, with some voters queuing up at polling places two hours before they opened.

"I'm concerned that everyone who comes out to vote, that their vote is counted," said Patricia Blackmon of Miami. She was waiting for her 86-year-old mother and 90-year-old stepfather to cast ballots in one of the city's predominantly African-American precincts; Blackmon voted days earlier.

"I have faith that it's all going to work," she said.

Indeed, many voters were optimistic that Florida would avoid the problems that led to 2000's problems.

"If you expect trouble, you'll find it," said 75-year-old Lillie Daniels. She tried to vote twice during early voting, but couldn't find a parking space — so she waited in a short line in Miami on Tuesday.

Some optical scan machines malfunctioned in nearby Hialeah, said voting advocates from Election Protection, a national organization monitoring several precincts in Florida. Optical scan machines tabulate paper ballots that voters fill out using pens; problems of jammed scanners cropped up around the state.

Electronic signature machines used to track voters and help confirm their identities malfunctioned at five precincts in Pasco County on Tuesday morning, forcing elections workers to register people on paper while waiting for technicians.

In Clearwater, some ballot scanners didn't work for some 45 minutes due to a paper jam. The problem was fixed. Similar problems were reported in Hillsborough County.

And in Palm Beach County, where many of the 2000 election problems surfaced, officials said some machines at the 450 polling locations were not accepting ballots because voters are not filling out the second page, which contains proposed amendments to the Florida Constitution. Poll workers had to manually override the machine and enter the vote by hand, officials said.

A few optical scanners in Duval County malfunctioned but were repaired quickly.

Michael Baccich, 57, of Tampa, said he was told he'd already requested and returned an absentee ballot when he went to vote Tuesday morning. He said he hadn't even requested one.

He was sent to an affirmation desk where he said poll workers tried to clear up the discrepancy over the phone but couldn't get through to headquarters. Baccich finally cast a provisional ballot for Republican John McCain.

"I'm worried that it isn't gonna count," he said. "Somebody voted for me, that's what I think. The way the operation is in there right now, and the confusion and the backups, they won't get to my ballot until four years from now."

At a Tallahassee church, poll workers couldn't wake up the pastor who lives behind it. A sheriff's deputy drove his car up to his house and blasted the siren and lights and woke him up. The poll opened about 20 minutes late.

Secretary of State Kurt Browning blamed a clerk for not opening a Palm Beach County polling place until 8 a.m. instead of 7 a.m. as required by law. He said the clerk was trying to do paperwork before opening up the polls. Browning said that it is likely that some voters were unable to vote because of the mistake.

Browning also noted a polling place in Leon County failed to open on time as well because the locks on the building were changed, but county Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho had a backup plan that enabled him to still take ballots from voters until the doors were opened.

"It's been a relatively quiet morning and we are very, very pleased," Browning said.

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