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Glitches, but No Major Hitch

Government officials say system went more smoothly than expected, yet reports of problems at the polls pour in by the thousands.

November 03, 2004|Ralph Vartabedian and Richard Serrano | Times Staff Writer

The nation's patchwork election system functioned without a serious breakdown Tuesday, despite tens of thousands of reports in various states about voting machine failures, registration disputes and dirty tricks played on voters.

Liberal and conservative groups complained about irregularities and in several cases, attorneys pressed instant lawsuits in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Louisiana, though there was scant evidence that any of the disputes were significant enough to change the outcomes of the presidential race.

State and federal officials said the voting went more smoothly than they had expected and that they did not expect the outcome of the presidential election to be thrown into doubt either by flaws in election procedures or defects in voting machinery.

"There have been a few minor problems, but for the most part the voting appears to be going well, especially considering the heavy turnout," said Gracia Hillman, vice chairwoman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the year-old federal agency that oversees new federal election rules. "So far, so good."

In the months before the election, there was a high level of concern among outside groups and even some government officials that the reform effort initiated after the 2000 election had made insufficient progress and that there remained a reasonable risk that the election could be chaotic.

The majority of states, for example, had failed to meet voter registration standards mandated by a federal law passed in 2002. And a nationwide rush to replace antiquated voting technology with electronic systems prompted criticism that the new machines were more vulnerable to manipulation because they lacked a paper record that could be audited in a recount.

The worst fears of experts were not realized. Even Kerry spokesman Joe Lockhart talked about the absence of major troubles at the polls. "The system seems to be working," he said.

But activist groups said they were flooded with complaints by voters who encountered problems at precincts across the nation. Common Cause, a Washington-based political watchdog group, said it had received 153,000 calls to its hotline, about half of which were reports of problems. The Election Protection Coalition, a group of liberal organizations, reported more than 68,000 complaints about voting systems -- a mix of machine failures, registration problems and issues involving provisional ballots.

Civil rights groups, meanwhile, said voters in minority neighborhoods were getting bogus calls urging them to vote today or directing them to false poll addresses.

"This is a new low," said Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Republican groups in some states, including Florida, said the massive election-watching effort mounted by liberal groups had intimidated many conservative voters. In Broward County, for example, attorneys backing Kerry were demanding identification from voters waiting in line, according to the Florida Republican Party.

Meanwhile, electronic voting machines were being used by 45 million people -- more than double the number who used them in 2000 -- and they performed fairly well.

"It was smooth like silk; you just pressed a choice with your finger," said Rita Gold, a retiree in Delray Beach, Fla.

But some problems did occur in Florida, Louisiana and Ohio -- glitches that caused lines to back up at polling places and prompted complaints by some irate voters. Computer experts said it was still too early to determine whether the failures had only inconvenienced voters in limited areas or had actually corrupted the vote totals.

"There are obviously problems around the country, but we don't have a good overall picture yet," said Stanford University professor David Dill, who organized a nationwide effort to monitor computerized voting systems. "We are still in the fog of war right now."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group that focuses on technology issues, said it had received 600 reports of problems with electronic touch-screen voting systems, including widespread complaints in New Orleans.

"New Orleans wins the award for the worst voting situation in the country," said EFF staff attorney Cindy Cohn.

A lawsuit that aimed to keep the polls open for an extra two hours failed Tuesday. The New Orleans suit was one of several quick court efforts mounted by the thousands of attorneys deployed across the nation for the election.

In Philadelphia, a federal judge late Tuesday prohibited city election officials from immediately counting an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 absentee ballots, based on claims by Republicans that the city had not provided advance lists of approved absentee voters. U.S. District Court Judge William H. Yohn set a hearing for this morning to decide whether to extend the order.

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