Nervous Fla. officials brace for E-Day

MIAMI Florida officials are hoping to head off yet another Election Day humiliation Tuesday after deja vu snafus ruined last month's debut of the state's revamped voting system.

The Sept. 10 primary was marred by massive confusion, mostly in Florida's two biggest counties, Miami-Dade and adjoining Broward. Poll workers had received little training on new touch-screen voting machines, and a multitude of glitches caused a delay in declaring the Democratic gubernatorial primary winner, Bill McBride over Janet Reno.

"After the embarrassment of Sept. 10, I'm not taking anything for granted," Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas says.

Florida's problems with the primary showed that updating the nation's voting system won't be an easy task. President Bush on Tuesday signed into law an ambitious, $3.9 billion voting-overhaul package. But it will take at least three years to phase in new technology and other changes mandated nationwide.

Some experts predict widespread problems next week, when Americans return to the polls for the first major election since the bitter presidential recount of 2000. Primary voters already faced complications elsewhere this year:

  • In Los Angeles, about 20% of 25,000 volunteer poll workers failed to show up for work, which caused locked doors and long lines at polls.
  • In Montgomery County, Md., power failures zapped new computerized voting machines.
  • In Michigan, a faulty ballot design led to voter error, and 10% of ballots were spoiled.

But in Florida, primary problems were particularly galling since the state scrapped punch-card ballots and rewrote its election system after the botched 2000 election. Instead of being celebrated as a shining example of reform, South Florida found itself once again the butt of embarrassing headlines. Sweeping changes were ordered before Tuesday:

  • In Miami-Dade, Penelas tapped the police department to coordinate poll-worker training and logistics. And, in a move that stung image-conscious leaders, an organization that normally oversees voting in Third World countries will now monitor Tuesday's election in Miami.
  • In Broward County, commissioners staged a management coup, wresting control over voting from the county's embattled election supervisor, Miriam Oliphant.
  • Both counties will augment volunteer poll workers on Election Day with staff pulled from various departments. And both are promoting early voting to ease the anguish of going to the polls.

Though voters elsewhere also encountered difficulties, problems were most severe in the two urban counties, which stretch from north of Fort Lauderdale to south of Miami. Together, the two counties comprise more than one-fifth of Florida's 9.3 million voters.

Florida gives responsibility for running elections to supervisors in each of the state's 67 counties. Consequently, most of the blame for last month's meltdown fell on election chiefs in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Both were widely accused of slipshod planning and poor preparation. Critics from Gov. Jeb Bush on down noted that election officials in Florida's 65 other counties managed to pull off the primary without major problems.

But other factors also contributed to the primary gone wrong, experts say.

After the botched presidential contest in November 2000, Florida led the nation in enacting election changes. State legislators authorized $32 million to update voting technology, coordinate voter-registration lists and educate poll workers and voters. Local governments spent millions more.

Many of the improvements first passed in Florida were incorporated in the package the president signed on Tuesday.

Florida, itching to overcome its laughingstock status after the drawn-out presidential election, acted too hastily to replace a process unchanged for decades with brand new technology and procedures, critics say. Poll workers couldn't keep up, especially when training was scant, as it was in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

"The only people who showed up that day ready to do their jobs were the voters," says Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a Web site that tracks election reforms.

Many poll workers chose not to show up at all, a trend echoed elsewhere.

"It's happening to us nationwide," says Doug Lewis, director of The Election Center, a support organization for election supervisors. "We're expecting these people to be absolutely perfect. To know something about election law, about civil rights law and about disability rights. Are we putting too much on the plates of poll workers?"

And all that is for an average polling-day pay of $7 per hour nationwide, Lewis says. In some spots, average no-show rates for poll workers have nearly tripled, to 20%, Lewis says. Government workers are stepping in to help staff precincts, he says, as will now be the case in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Two fouled-up elections have left South Floridians wary.

"People really were upset, no question about it," says Jane Gross, a Broward County resident and the Florida president of the League of Women Voters. "Now, they just want to know they'll be able to get into their precinct, cast their vote and get out."