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Glitches Mar Florida Primary

Election: Polls open late, problems reported with high-tech ballots. Bush extends hours of voting.

September 11, 2002|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — Tuesday was supposed to be Florida's chance at a makeup exam in civics, to show itself and the rest of the country that it had learned the right lessons from the fiasco of 2000 and could organize a proper election.

Instead, in the first statewide voting since Floridians cast ballots for president 22 months ago, polls opened late in many precincts, and the high-tech ATM-style touch-screens that were supposed to relegate the old punch-card ballots to the ash heap of history showed they could pose their own troubles.

With problems reported in precincts from Jacksonville to Miami, Gov. Jeb Bush proclaimed a "state of emergency" and ordered polls across Florida kept open for an additional two hours, until 9 p.m., "to ensure maximum citizen participation in the electoral process."

Keenly aware of being yet again in the spotlight, state officials noted that voter complaints were concentrated in the Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas, and that the day went smoothly in most of the rest of the peninsula. The effect of the miscues on actual returns was unclear Tuesday night.

In one predominantly black neighborhood in Miami's Liberty City, voting didn't begin until 11:45 a.m., nearly five hours behind schedule, and more than 500 would-be voters were turned away.

Janet Reno, the former U.S. attorney general who was one of three candidates in Florida's Democratic gubernatorial primary, arrived at the polling station near her Kendall home before it opened at 7 a.m., but she had to cool her heels outside as election officials booted up the new computerized touch-screen machines.

Reno waited about 15 minutes before she was able to cast her ballot, but other voters who were more impatient gave up. Reno later called on Bush, the Republican incumbent she was hoping to face in the general election on Nov. 5, to extend polling in counties where machines weren't working earlier.

"Thousands of people were unable to vote this morning and deserve a chance to vote this evening," Reno said in a statement. "With the eyes of the whole world watching Florida's first major election since the 2000 recount, it is more important than ever that our state proactively takes steps to protect every person's right to vote."

"Unfortunately, we have had some glitches," admitted Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, apologizing to voters in his county for problems posed by 6,300 new voting machines. He asked people who hadn't been able to cast ballots in the morning to return to the polls in the afternoon or evening.

To the north in Broward County, home to more registered voters than any other county in the state, scores of poll workers did not show up on time or at all, and polls opened late in at least six cities. In Miramar, some voters waited for more than three hours to vote. Some people blamed poor organization and poll worker recruiting and training by the county's new supervisor of elections, Miriam Oliphant, a Democrat.

As news spread of what one South Florida television station dubbed election "chaos and confusion," some disgruntled people called or e-mailed local media to vent. "This is outrageous," Pauline Winick of Miami Beach told the Miami Herald. "After being so embarrassed by Florida's voting scandal, you would have thought that they'd do better than this."

After casting her vote at a polling station on Miami's Biscayne Bay, schoolteacher Arlene Prieto, 43, theorized that there was a political agenda behind the spate of voting problems. "It's indicative that there isn't the highest degree of integrity in ensuring the rights of voters in Florida, especially minority voters," she said.

Newly appointed Secretary of State Jim Smith, a Republican who endorsed Reno's call for extended voting hours, angrily placed the blame for the mess at the polls on the shoulders of officials in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, which reported the bulk of Tuesday's problems. "I'd like to know what ... they've been doing for two years," Smith, the state's top election official, said heatedly in Tallahassee. "Sixty-five counties have gotten it right, not perfect, but they've gotten it right. Two counties have again, I think, caused some embarrassment to our state, and I regret that."

"We expected problems, but not to this magnitude," said Gisela Salas, Miami-Dade's assistant supervisor of elections. Her boss, David Leahy, is a registered independent, and he has held his job for more than 20 years.

On May 4, 2001, the Florida Legislature voted to outlaw punch card ballots and allocated $32 million to buy new voting machines, fund a voter education program and train poll workers. That was six months after Florida's disputed election returns plunged the country into a constitutional crisis that lasted for 36 anxious days before George W. Bush was declared the victor in this state, and thus the country.

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