Florida primary prompts
state of emergency

By Diana Lynne

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency yesterday over the primary election and extended polling hours after a Democratic candidate and former member of the Clinton administration – in a bizarre deja vu – went to court over problems at the polls.

But this time, you can’t blame the hanging chad.

In fact, new voting systems and procedures mandated by lawmakers to avoid the irregularities that threw the 2000 presidential election into limbo for 36 days are largely to blame for polls opening as much as four hours late and hundreds of voters being turned away.

“Apparently a lot of the poll workers did not understand the procedures for opening up the machines,” explained Gisela Salas, the assistant supervisor of Miami-Dade County Elections.

At one Miami precinct, it took workers nearly five hours to get machines up and running. Officials estimated about 500 people left the precinct without voting.

“Nobody has been able to vote in this district, period,” Delbra Lewis told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel late in the morning. “I’ve been here since 7 a.m. and I haven’t been able to vote.”

Confusion over new touchscreen technology also snarled voters in Broward County. At one precinct, only one machine was working when polls opened at 7 a.m. No-shows by dozens of poll workers also wreaked havoc in Broward.

After herself encountering a delay in trying to vote, gubernatorial candidate and former Attorney General Janet Reno filed an injunction to extend the hours at polling places “that did not open in a timely manner.” Reno’s injunction cited problems in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Duval Counties.

A volunteer for Reno’s campaign told WorldNetDaily that they had fielded numerous calls, including one from a disabled woman who said she had made several attempts to vote and was turned away each time by poll workers who said they weren’t ready.

Secretary of State Jim Smith slammed supervisors over the problems: “I am very disappointed that our two largest counties had so much difficulty. … I frankly wonder what in the hell they have been doing for two years.”

Following a request by Smith, Bush ordered all 6,715 precincts across the state to remain open an additional two hours.

“I hereby declare that … a state of emergency exists. In order to ensure maximum citizen participation in the electoral process and to protect the integrity of the electoral process, for today’s election all polling places in the state shall remain open for two hours beyond their regularly scheduled
closing times,” Bush stated in his executive order.

While Reno applauded the move, rival Democratic gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Daryl Jones told WND he thought the order was overeaching on Bush’s part.

“I’m looking for equal footing. Every precinct should have 12-hour voting,” Jones said. “To the extent that you have polls opening late … it’s appropriate to extend the hours at those places. However, you change the dynamics when you give some precincts where there were no problems 14 hours of polling.”

“I would have handled this differently if I were Gov. Bush or the secretary of state,” Jones added. “But I don’t want to complain. Better access is better than no access.”

“What we learned in 2000 is that a handful of problems can impact the entire state,” David Host, communications director for the Florida Department of State, told WND.

“In 65 of the 67 counties, we’ve had a very smooth election,” Host said, pointing out that the bulk of the problems were in Miami-Dade and Broward.

Host reported an isolated incident of a precinct near downtown Jacksonville in Duval County that opened 90 minutes late because poll workers didn’t realize they were supposed to turn on machines themselves.

In Orange County, a printing error caused officials to hand count ballots in roughly half the precincts. Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles explained the problem involved the perforation at the bottom of the card that made it difficult to remove a ballot without tearing the bottom.

Palm Beach County, the epicenter of the 2000 recount storm, reported no significant problems, despite also suffering dozens of no-shows by poll workers.

Florida lawmakers went to work immediately following the presidential election debacle and passed reform legislation that outlawed punchcard ballots and mandated that counties already using optical-scan ballots adopt new machines called “Precinct Counters” that sound an alarm when a voter makes an error.

Lawmakers allocated a total of $32 million for new machines, voter education about the new machines and the development of a new central voter database to detect felons.

Overall, 41 of the 67 counties implemented new voting systems, including the touchscreen machines. Fifty percent of voters encountered new machines at the polls. Elections officials have offered hundreds of demonstrations at shopping malls, civic associations, churches and other organizations to try to avoid voter confusion.

“Piece of cake” was a common response to the new technology from voters departing from one Palm Beach County precinct.

“We were shocked to hear the problem arose down there because we’ve had no complaints,” a poll worker told WND.

In addition to the impact of the new equipment, Host says elections supervisors across the state were also dealing with new procedures, an additional 837 precincts and other changes prompted by redistricting.

“Supervisors have done a whale of a job,” Host said.

Related stories:

Reno stumps at ‘gay’ luncheon

‘Condo commandos’ caused ballot snafu

Related special offer:

How military vote was suppressed in 2000