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Waiting, confusion impede early vote
Many say they fear a repeat of Florida's election debacle of four years ago.

By Jane Musgrave

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Frustration gripped voters throughout Palm Beach County and across Florida as those who decided to take advantage of the first statewide exercise in early voting were greeted with long lines, malfunctioning machines and few people who could answer their questions.

In what many interpreted as a grim harbinger of the Nov. 2 presidential election, some who lined up at the eight early polling locations from Jupiter to Belle Glade to suburban Boca Raton and Delray Beach said their faith in the election system was shaken.

"We're trying to tell the world that we're a democracy, follow our lead," said Ethel Bornstein, 64, who waited an hour and a half to vote outside the county branch library on West Atlantic Boulevard before giving up. "We're painting a very bad picture to the world, for whatever reason."

Many witnessing what they called mass confusion on the first day of early voting said they are convinced that the stage is set for an ugly repeat of Florida's 2000 election debacle.

"It's going to make Florida a laughingstock again," said Rabbi Harlan Kilstein of the long lines at the Southwest County Regional Library west of Boca Raton, where the voting was hampered by delays in electronically checking voter registrations. "Gear up for the late night (comedy) programs."

State Rep. Shelley Vana, D-Lantana, said she opted to take an absentee paper ballot when she went to the main elections office in West Palm Beach to vote.

Unfortunately, the ballot she received was short a page. Though eventually given the missing page containing various proposed state constitutional amendments, she said many voters wouldn't have detected the problem.

"I'm not trying to be an alarmist; I don't know how widespread it is," she said, "but people need to look and make sure they have the right number of pages."

Then, expressing the feeling of many, she added, "We really need to get it right this time," referring to how wrong the county got it four years ago when lawsuits put the presidential election in limbo for 36 days.

Elections Supervisor Theresa LePore, who spent the day in a Miami courtroom defending her office in a suit U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Delray Beach, filed over what he considers flaws in the electronic voting system, was unaware of the problems because cellphones are not allowed in federal courthouses.

However, she attributed the problems, in part, to a system ill-equipped to deal with large numbers of voters.

Voting sites set up at county libraries in the south county, recreation centers in Jupiter and Royal Palm Beach and city hall in Belle Glade don't have high-speed Internet connections, critical to keeping lines moving, she said.

To assure only registered voters cast ballots, workers have to dial in to the county's main computer to search registration lists. At the temporary voting locations, the lack of high-speed connections means such searches take several minutes. During those minutes, the line of voters grows.

She said she had heard of similar problems in other counties.

Vana's absentee ballot problem, she said, was an "isolated, honest mistake."

In Hillsborough County, computer networking problems caused delays of up to two hours. In Broward County, where the worst problems were reported in 2002, when electronic machines were introduced in Florida, several locations had problems linking laptops to elections headquarters.

In Orange County, the computers went down for about 10 minutes shortly after voting began, said Margaret Dunn, the senior deputy elections supervisor.

A spokesman for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush dismissed the problems as "minor glitches."

"We think the elections supervisors did a great job of handling the minor glitches that came up," said Bush spokesman Jacob DiPietre. "People should be confident in the elections process in Florida."

Voters forced to wait in long lines did not share that enthusiasm.

"I have to stand in lines to vote and I can't get a flu shot? What kind of country is this?" asked Jane Silverman, 74, who stood in line to vote with her 81-year-old diabetic husband for a half hour at the South County Governmental Center before deciding the wait wasn't worth it.

"It's absolutely horrendous," said Ben Piltch, who stood in line with his wife at the library on West Atlantic Avenue in suburban Delray Beach for three hours.

Both President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, were in West Palm Beach over the weekend, preaching the advantages of voting early or by absentee ballot.

Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson joined the chorus on Monday at a rally of Florida A&M University students in Tallahassee.

Describing the state as the "crime scene" where the presidency was stolen from Democrat Al Gore in 2000, Jackson lauded students who camped out all night in front of the Leon County Courthouse to be the first in line to vote.

Locally, rallies were held by Democrat-leaning groups, such as Moveon.org. State Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, drove elderly voters to early vote sites.

Many voters who tried to avoid lines by casting absentee ballots sounded as frustrated as those who went to the early polling locations.

Richard Fagan of west Boynton Beach, said he was placed on hold for more than a half-hour when he called the Palm Beach County elections office from Massachusetts to find out why he hadn't received the absentee ballot he ordered in July. No one, he said, could answer his question.

Others said they called the office because they were worried that their votes wouldn't count if they filled out their absentee ballots in something other than the recommended No. 2 pencil.

LePore has said scanners that read the absentee ballots are able to read marks made by pens, as well as pencils.

Still, such worries — founded and unfounded — created tension among voters who admit the 2000 election turned them into cynics.

"It's such a bad situation," Fagan said. "And Florida doesn't have such a good reputation."

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