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Computer problems reported at Broward early voting sites

By Jean-Paul Renaud & Sarah Halasz
South Florida sun-sentinel.com
Posted October 18 2004,
As long lines gathered at polls, early voters at nine of Broward County's 14 sites ran into computer-generated problems on Monday.

Gisela Salas, of the Broward Elections Office, said workers had problems connesting with a live database that is used to verify that a voter is properly registered in the county.

The sites, Salas said, that were unaffected were at satellite offices in Deerfield Beach, Hollywood, Lauderhill, Pembroke Pines and Plantation.

All 14 of the branch offices had problems with the database connection. Many of the sites had numerous voters lined up to cast their ballots. Some reported waiting in lines up to 2-1/2 hours to vote.

A work-around was created by calling in each voter's name to the main Election's Office in Fort Lauderdale. Two office workers were assigned to each phone, Salas said, for a slowed verification process. The workers would plug into the database, and verify that the voter in one of the branch sites was indeed registered to vote.

Shortly after 2 p.m., some of the branch sites, which were using laptop computers, began getting back online and gaining access to the database. And shortly after 3 p.m., all but one of the branch sites the one in Oakland Park were back online.

Salas said it was not yet known what went wrong to cause the glitch.

Voters at several sites said poll workers told them the problems started 20 minutes to 30 minutes after the early polling stations opened at 8:30 a.m. The stations close at 6 p.m.

At the Tamarac branch public library, where voting stopped after the computer glitch, Sally Zwanger, a poll watcher for the Kerry campaign, claimed the problems reflected the inability of Gov. Jeb Bush's administration to fix voting problems left over from the 2000 election.

"The worst thing to hear was, 'I support Kerry, but I can't wait in this line,'" she said. "We are having a repeat of 2000, and it's only in Florida that this could happen. This administration would do anything to ensure that he [Bush] stays in office."

Zwanger said at one point there were 63 people in line, most of whom had gone home without voting by 11 a.m.

She also said waiting voters were told at 8:30 a.m. that every voting location in Broward County was was closed. But she found out after calling the Broward County Elections Office headquarters that the Plantation location and four others were still open.

Susan Emert waited for two hours - starting at 8:20 a.m. before she finally had to leave for work.

"They had all the time from when they said the voting machines will be used, all the time to perfect them, and here we are, up the creek," she said, throwing her arms wildly up in the air. "This is really another black eye for the county. I'm so fed up."

Before leaving, however, Emert was able to get a number from an elections official. It will allow her to receive priority placement in the line when she returns.

Most of the voters waiting in the line were seniors, and many shared Emert's frustration. They repeatedly uttered phrases such as, "This is ridiculous," and "This is so frustrating."

Lucien Gennaro, a police aide in Coral Springs, waited for an hour at a public library to cast his vote Monday morning, before he had to leave for work.

``A lot of people who were waiting just left. I'll try again tomorrow,'' he said. ``It was a little frustrating after what happened in 2000.''

In Palm Beach County, the center of the madness during the 2000 presidential recount, a state legislator said she wasn't given a complete absentee ballot when she asked not to use the electronic touch-screen machines. In Orange County, the computer system that lists voters briefly crashed, paralyzing voting in Orlando and its immediate suburbs. And in Broward County several sites had problems with laptops connected to elections headquarters.

State Rep. Shelley Vana, D-Lantana, was the seventh person in line Monday at a Palm Beach County early voting site.

She said the paper absentee ballot she received was missing one of its two pages, including the proposed amendments to the state constitution. She said election workers were indifferent when she pointed out the oversight.

``There was absolutely no concern on the part of the folks at the Supervisor of Elections Office that this page was missing. This is not a good start. If there are incomplete ballots out there, I can't imagine I would be the only one getting it,'' she said.

Elections supervisor Theresa LePore did not immediately return a call for comment.

In Orange County, the computers went down for about 10 minutes shortly after voting began, said Margaret Dunn, the senior deputy elections supervisor. She said she did not know what caused the problem, but speculated a faulty Internet connection may have been to blame.

Texas, Colorado and Arkansas also began casting early ballots Monday, 15 days before Election Day. Other key states this year have already begun in-person voting, including Iowa, Nevada, Ohio and New Mexico.

In Palm Beach County, a steady flow of voters cast early ballots. Robin Punches, a stay-at-home mom from West Palm Beach, said she came early to vote because she heard it would increase the chance of her vote being accurately counted. It was her first time using the touch-screen voting machines.

``It tells you exactly what to do. It's idiot proof,'' she said.

In Tallahassee, a few students camped out overnight in front of the Leon County Courthouse to raise awareness of early voting, and were first to vote Monday morning.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson was in Tallahassee Monday, rallying students at Florida A&M University.

``Vote early and get the kinks out of the system,'' the former Democratic presidential candidate told students before riding with them on buses to the courthouse.

In Miami-Dade County, where early voting sites were to open later Monday, about 150 people gathered for a rally led by the Rev. Al Sharpton and former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. Some people were carrying homemade signs that said ``Early Voting Counts'' and ``Every Vote Matters.''

Early voting was introduced in Florida after the 2000 election, in which this crucial state decided the result by only 537 votes and introduced topics such as butterfly ballots and hanging chads to the national debate.

Both President Bush and his Democratic challenger, John Kerry, arranged campaign swings through the Sunshine State over the weekend to coincide with the start of early voting.

Some groups are urging voters to cast a paper absentee ballot, as Vana did, because of concerns over the state's new touch-screen voting machines and any potential recounts. Voters Monday could chose either method.

``It's going to be changing the way candidates campaign because they have to get their message out to people two to three weeks earlier than in the past,'' LePore said last week.

Even as voters turned out, lawyers were going to court in Fort Lauderdale to argue a lawsuit over the lack of paper backup on the electronic machines.

Some have criticized the concept of early voting, saying it increases opportunities for vote fraud without significantly boosting voter participation. Still, most states offer the option of early voting.

Duval County, the most populous county in the state to open just one early voting site, will open at least two more as soon as possible, Hood announced Monday.

A Jacksonville city attorney had said it was too late to open additional sites, even though the city council committed money to the idea. Gov. Jeb Bush had opposed the one-site plan, and Hood urged the city to open more polling places.

Earlier Monday, protesters had gathered outside the Duval election supervisor's office, carrying signs and singing civil-rights songs.

Election officials say that although the early voting efforts create more work in a busy election year, they're pushing for voters to get to the polls and make their voices heard any way they can.

``As long as people vote, we're happy,'' said LePore, who lost her re-election bid in August. ``But if something really bad happens about a candidate two days before an election, you can't change your vote.''

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