In Florida — the make-it-or-break-it state for the next president of
the United States — a family reports that while a downtown city office
building was packed with people signing registration affidavits allowing
them to cast ballots, poll workers at an area polling location refused
to allow three people to vote because their names did not appear on
voter registration rolls.

Such inconsistencies in the treatment of unlisted voters raises
questions about qualifications of poll workers, who are relied upon to
have a working knowledge of election laws.

Angel Barreiros and his wife showed up at their polling place — a
fire station six blocks from their home in an unincorporated area near
Miami — just as polls opened in Florida at 7 a.m. The couple was the
first to arrive to cast their votes before heading off to work. To
their surprise, Mrs. Barreiros was not listed on the precinct’s voter
registration list.

A former Commerce Department employee who worked on the 2000 census
in Washington, D.C., Mrs. Barreiros returned to Miami in August when she
renewed her driver license and simultaneously updated her voter
registration. The Florida State University employee was prevented from
casting her ballot, however, because she was not listed at the precinct.

The couple waited, along with two other people in similar situations,
while the poll worker spent a half-hour on the phone trying to reach
election officials for instructions. The poll worker told Mr. Barreiros
that no one answered the phone and that the couple would have to wait
until later in the day for further instructions.

According to Mr. Barreiros, the poll worker never received
instructions from election officials, and his wife was subsequently
prevented from voting.

“They did not offer any solutions,” he said, noting that the poll
worker never suggested his wife cast a provisional ballot. The couple
— and apparently the poll worker — were not aware of the existence of

provisional ballots.

But in a downtown office building housing many offices for the City of Miami, where the Barreiros’ son-in-law is employed, people lined up to sign affidavits of their registration, enabling them to vote. It is unknown if the ballots were classified as provisional, meaning they are not counted until registration is verified.

The Miami-Dade County supervisor of elections could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Barreiros questions the election process in his area.

“What surprised me is that if there is such a thing as signing an affidavit and being allowed to vote, why wasn’t that offered to my wife?” he asked. “Why didn’t they (poll workers) mention that first, and second, why didn’t the people who were handling these things answer the phone for a half an hour?” Regarding unreachable election officials, he added, “I suppose maybe their regular times are from 9 to 5 … but if the polls open at 7, maybe they should, too.”

Election systems employing volunteer poll workers have frequently come under fire in past elections, since volunteers are not required to demonstrate any working knowledge of election laws. And in a race as tight as the presidential battle in Florida, such knowledge on the part of poll workers — for example, the existence and treatment of provisional ballots — could sway perhaps the most critical national election of the decade.

“I think if you had, number one, a larger and better-trained pool of poll workers, it is always going to help the process. Yes, it’s going to make a difference, I believe, in any election,” said Karen Saranita, president of the Institute for Fair Elections. “We always hear about irregularities” among precincts following most elections, she added.

“Poll workers don’t always understand what they should do in a certain circumstance. Sometimes they don’t even know how to fill out the forms at the end of the day,” she continued.

Saranita, who is a former elections consultant to the California state Senate, said her group is very aware of the problem and has suggested remedies to election officials. The Institute for Fair Elections proposes making poll working a civic duty on equal footing with jury duty.

“Right now, poll workers are volunteers. We would like to see them change it to a system [more] equal to jury duty,” the activist said. “We would like to see them offer people a choice between jury duty for two weeks or working a poll for one day and taking a class.”

Such a system, Saranita explained, would do away with hardship excuses, since participants would have the choice of performing their civic duty in a “day and a half,” compared to the two weeks often required by jury duty. Headquartered in California, Saranita believes her proposal would solve a problem in her state, which is “always short of poll workers because not enough people volunteer.”

“Since you wouldn’t be dependent on volunteers, you could require that they attend a class … as part of fulfilling their obligation. That’s our recommendation to better educate poll workers,” she continued. “You’re not going to get partisans because it’s strictly based on who gets called. You get people required to take a class and become informed about the law.”

As for the Florida battle between Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush, Saranita indicated the race is far from over.

“They’re obviously going to challenge irregular ballots. You still have some uncounted absentees. We’ve been trying to spread the word that our election system has problems, and nobody listened for five years. Now all of a sudden it could affect who runs our country for the next four years. Bottom line is this: We can have a better system, and we deserve it,” she concluded.

In the meantime, Americans are left questioning the accuracy and effectiveness of current election practices across the nation, best summed up by Mr. Barreiros: “I have questions; I don’t have answers.”

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California in frenzy over voter fraud

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