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Election 2002 | National Results

No Joke: Florida Election Is Smooth

Touch screen voting machines work well in a state where past snafus made it a laughingstock.

November 06, 2002|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI -- An unusual thing happened Tuesday in Florida, land of the perplexingly designed ballot and dragged-out vote tally. They held an election again, and it came off smoothly. There was even a winner before people went to bed.

"No voter was turned away if they were at the correct precinct and they were eligible voters," boasted Miriam M. Oliphant, elections supervisor in Broward County, who was criticized for the glitches last time around.

On Tuesday, nearly two months of frenzied preparations, military-style planning, poll worker retraining, millions of dollars in additional spending, and large-scale drafting of police and civil servants paid off.

There was even a final result less than two hours after the last polls in the Panhandle closed. Incumbent Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, had won a second term, fending off Democrat Bill McBride.

Florida's error-prone electoral process has been a rich vein for the likes of Leno and Letterman, but from now on, said Richard Conley, assistant professor of political science at the University of Florida, "other states will take over -- they will make the comedy hour."

Tuesday's worst teething pains with voting technology, in fact, were not in the Sunshine State, but elsewhere. In Fort Worth, and nearby cities, computers had trouble reading nearly 300,000 ballots that might have been marked with straight party-line votes. In some counties of Georgia and North Carolina, balky touch-screen voting machines were also reported.

In Florida's Sept. 10 party primary, the polling station inside Thena C. Crowder Elementary School in Miami's Liberty City was the kind of electoral horror show that catapulted Florida into the headlines.

Would-be voters were sent away by the hundreds after new touch screen voting machines crashed and couldn't be revived for more than five hours. A downpour doused the neighborhood, and rain and lightning strikes cut off power at least three times.

In stark contrast, polling in Precinct 507 opened at 7 a.m. Tuesday in the school atrium as scheduled, and voting was so easy that Carlton Bellamy, 54, wrongly thought the touch screen machines, which function like ATMs, had been replaced.

"It was fine, great," said the church worker and missionary, who left the polls on a bicycle with his granddaughter Drucilla, 6, perched on the handlebars. "Ten minutes this time, compared to three hours last time."

After the 2000 presidential contest, bitter and partisan disputes over the size of holes voters punched in ballots, confusing butterfly ballots in Palm Beach County and other problems in Florida held up for 35 days the proclamation of George W. Bush as ultimate victor.

The state spent $32 million to replace punch card voting machines and make other electoral reforms. However, difficulties with new, unfamiliar touch screen machines and unprepared and ill-trained poll workers caused another mess in South Florida during the primary. It took a week to tabulate the ballots.

For Tuesday, more than 1,000 public employees were mobilized to help in Broward, and in Miami-Dade County, the number was easily three times that. At Crowder Elementary, the polling staff was doubled, to 10, including employees of Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue and the county water and sewer department.

Police in Miami-Dade played an unprecedented role, taking command of election logistics and planning and assuming responsibility for the transport of polling personnel, voting machines and the sandwiches, cookies and potato chips provided to poll workers for lunch.

In Broward County, commissioners wrested effective control of polling preparations from Oliphant, a novice elections supervisor discredited in the primary fiasco. A 588-step checklist was compiled, with officials working out of the same emergency command post they would use during a hurricane.

"These new machines are a whole lot better," said Scott Allen, 32, a Broward parking attendant. "The ballot was just so long, but I got something in the mail so I knew what to expect. I went to my polling place in Pembroke Pines at 7 a.m., and there were about 20 people in front of me. I was in and out in 40 minutes."

It wasn't a picture-perfect day: At least three counties in central Florida reported malfunctions with another type of voting machine, the optical scanner. People for the American Way Foundation, one of many organizations to send poll monitors and lawyers to Florida, claimed that touch screen machines in eight Miami-area precincts were counting ballots cast for Democrat Bill McBride as votes for his opponent, Jeb Bush.

But only hours after the polls opened, it was clear that the nation's fourth most populous state was not headed for yet another election day train wreck.

Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a critic of past elections in Florida, said: "There were glitches in Miami-Dade County and in Broward, but the glitches were fixed. It's wonderful that Florida finally had a good election."

Meanwhile, after weeks of warning that Los Angeles County was facing a shortage of poll workers, officials said Tuesday that there were more than enough volunteers to run the county's 4,922 voting locations.

"We've been dealing with very minor issues," said county Registrar-Recorder Conny B. McCormack.

According to McCormack, 28 polling places opened late -- the norm for Los Angeles County. (In one case, a voting supervisor forgot that Tuesday was election day. In another instance, a custodian forgot to unlock the library for poll workers.) Nearly 23,000 people -- including top county officials -- showed up at polling places to volunteer.

*

Times staff writers Bree Argetsinger in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Tina Daunt in Los Angeles, and researchers Anna M. Virtue in Miami and Edith Stanley in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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