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Early balloting continues in Palm Beach County, and so do voters' gripes

By Anthony Man
South Florida Sun-Sentinel  Posted October 20 2004

With two weeks to go until Election Day, Palm Beach County voters continued to stream to the polls Tuesday, putting the state's new system of early voting to the test.

Meanwhile, the other form of pre-Election Day voting, absentee balloting, continued its record-breaking pace.

Neither early voting nor absentee balloting was glitch-free, but the extent of the problem depended on who was assessing the situation.

Supervisor of Elections Theresa LePore said things generally went well on Tuesday.

"It's gone very smoothly," she said. "People in general have been cordial and have not complained that much. It's the politicians who have complained."

Democrats, by contrast, said problems were widespread on the first day of early voting and continued on Day Two. They also said there were problems with absentee voting.

Among those sounding the alarm: Supervisor of Elections-elect Arthur Anderson, who said he has been hearing complaints.

"I'm extremely concerned because we know there is a low level of confidence on the part of many in the voting public right now," he said, adding that people who have encountered difficulties should not give up.

LePore said Democratic Party leaders and elected officials are trying to whip up discontent.

"It's a shame this has turned into such a partisan effort to disrupt the elections process between the lawsuits and everything else that's going on," she said.

Waiting time was the main early-voting complaint from some voters and from Democratic officials organized to speak on behalf of the John Kerry presidential campaign.

Voting scheduled to start at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the county library branch west of Boca Raton didn't begin until about noon.

Describing the poll workers as embarrassed by the mistake, LePore said they were so frazzled by the onslaught of voters and criticism on Monday that that they made a mistake.

For regular elections, workers turn two knobs, one to turn off the power and the other to close the polls. For early voting, they're only supposed to turn off the power. They did both Monday night, which meant the machines couldn't be activated Tuesday.

LePore said votes cast Monday are secure.

At the Atlantic Avenue library branch west of Delray Beach, some voters said they waited three hours Tuesday.

"This is stupidity at its greatest," said Hyman Chudrow, 82, of Delray Beach, who left the library Tuesday without voting.

Albert Bass, 68, who lives west of Delray Beach, stopped by Monday and Tuesday but opted not to wait either day.

"Here we are trying to exercise our right to vote and here they are not prepared," Bass said. "Do they want us to vote or don't they?"

Florida Senate Minority Leader Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, said at a news conference outside LePore's office that she needed to arrange more space at both libraries. LePore said she took the only space the county library system was willing to provide.

At the six non-library sites, LePore said, waits were short and complaints were few.

That was true much of the day at the main Supervisor of Elections Office west of West Palm Beach. Late in the morning, the wait was about 15 minutes by the time people got to the front door. From 5 to 6 p.m., no one was waiting outside and there were so few voters that some machines weren't being used.

In Broward County, early voting proceeded Tuesday without Monday's technical problems or interminable waits. Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes said the average wait was about a half-hour.

Anderson; state Rep. Anne Gannon, D-Delray Beach; and county Democratic Chairwoman Carol Ann Loehndorf said they were concerned about absentee-ballot problems. An unknown number of absentee ballots went out without a second page containing proposed amendments to the state constitution.

Norman Bleecher, who lives west of Boynton Beach, said that he received only the first page and that others in the neighborhood had the same problem.

"It's more widespread than we know," he said.

LePore said absentee-ballot problems have affected only a small fraction of the total. She said she had gotten only a "handful" of complaints.

"It has not been as rampant as they're saying," she said. "It shouldn't have happened at all, but when you think we have issued 75,000 of them in little over a week, it's bound to happen. It shouldn't, but we're human."

LePore said she brought in about 100 temporary workers to prepare the mailings because of the record number, more than the total for the 2000 presidential or 2002 gubernatorial elections, and 14 workdays lost to hurricanes.

LePore said about two-thirds of the county's voters should have two-page absentee ballots. The other one-third live in municipalities with local referendums and have three pages. Someone who didn't get the correct pages can call for a replacement, go into an elections office or vote early by machine, LePore said.

Others are worried because they haven't received absentee ballots.

LePore said all requests received by Oct. 8 went in the mail Oct. 12. She suggested people wait until the end of this week before calling to give the mail time to arrive.

Sharon Klein of Boynton Beach said she requested an absentee ballot in July for the general election. As of Tuesday, she was still waiting.

"It's very frustrating," said Klein. "Even though I'm only one person, every person counts."

Staff writers Josh Hafenbrack, Akilah Johnson, Beth Krane and Rafael Olmeda contributed to this report.

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