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Vote may be race with time

Early-voting patterns suggest that the time it takes South Florida voters to cast ballots on touch-screen machines will be critical to a smooth Election Day.

BY JOE MOZINGO, EVAN S. BENN AND TIM HENDERSON  Miami Herald    24 October 2004

If voters on Election Day spend the same amount of time casting ballots as some early voters have, South Florida polling places could be overwhelmed Nov. 2 with long lines that drag into the night, frustrated voters and delays in reporting election returns.

The Herald spent two days in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties observing more than 400 voters at several early-voting sites.

On Election Day in Miami-Dade, at least 516,000 voters are expected at the polls to vote on 6,466 machines. That means each machine, on average, must accommodate 80 voters throughout the day.

Yet, when The Herald monitored 14 machines during a consistently busy two-hour period of early voting, the process moved more slowly. At the pace observed, nearly six voters an hour, only 71 people per machine would vote by the normal closing time on Election Day.

To take pressure off Election Day, officials are urging people to show up at early-voting sites, where waits, especially after lunch, have been relatively short.

''I'm wracking my brain,'' said Miami-Dade Election Supervisor Constance A. Kaplan. ``I wish I could go out and buy more equipment to make it a better ratio.''

She said she has increased the number of poll inspectors and other workers who can help ensure that voters are quickly guided to available machines. ``And we're trying to get the sample ballot out so people will be familiar with it.''

Anyone in line by closing time 7 p.m. will be allowed to vote ''no matter how long it takes,'' Kaplan said.


The Herald also clocked 100 early voters in Miami-Dade spending an average of nine minutes each at the touch-screen machines not including the time it took the poll worker to guide the voter to the machine.

At that rate, to finish by closing time, voters would have to arrive in a steady stream throughout Election Day at every polling place, leaving no machine unused for even a moment. But in reality, many voters arrive at certain peak hours, and the polls are nearly empty at other times.

''It's very easy to calculate how long it's going to take [on Election Day] if you observe a few voters,'' said Lorrie Cranor, a Carnegie Mellon computer science professor. ``One of the problems with the [touch-screen] machines is that you're limited by how fast people can vote.''

Cranor said the voters timed by The Herald ``should give you plenty of data.''

In Broward, where the ballot is shorter, voters moved more quickly. Seventy-five early voters took an average of eight minutes 12 seconds. Broward has about the same number of registered voters as Miami-Dade, but it has fewer machines, and so far, fewer people are showing up for early voting.

Unless many more people vote early in Broward County, every machine on Election Day would have to record a vote every eight minutes seven seconds to finish in the 12 hours the polls are open.

Broward Election Supervisor Brenda Snipes and her deputy, Gisela Salas, could not be reached for comment.

The extra minutes and seconds may seem small, but compounded by more than a million voters expected in Miami-Dade and Broward on Election Day, voter advocates fear that they leave dangerously slim margins.

''If the lines are long, some people just give up. So it's a serious concern,'' said Douglas Jones, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa and a consultant to Miami-Dade's election department. ``And if the lines are long just in Dade County and short in the rest of the state, you have a discrimination case in the making.''


In Palm Beach County, The Herald timed 60 voters. They moved through the ballot in six minutes 21 seconds, on average, which could accommodate all expected voters by the scheduled closing time.

In Delray Beach, Sandra Goldberg, 68, said she passed the time in line reading proposed amendments on a sample ballot and was well prepared when she reached the booth, taking only five minutes to vote. ''That's the secret do your homework,'' she said.

But with such slim margins, several unpredictable factors could add to the crowd at any polling place: People will likely come in clumps, not evenly spread throughout the day; there may be technical problems that slow things down further; voter turnout might be higher than in the last presidential election; and some polling places will be slower than others.

At the North Shore Branch Library near Bal Harbour, for instance, 30 observed early voters took an average of 10 minutes 24 seconds ranging from a woman with an umbrella who took 25 minutes 32 seconds to a woman in a gray suit who took three minutes 36 seconds.

If that average of more than 10 minutes were the norm throughout Election Day, voters could be in line long into the night.

On the other hand, there are variables that might ease the load. Long lines might put pressure on people not to dawdle at the machine. More early voters might turn out as Election Day approaches. Maybe early voters, for whatever reason, are slower than Election Day voters.


Regardless, election officials and experts advise both early voters and Election Day voters to show up at times other than midmorning or after work, when lines are the longest. And they say that employers need to be accommodating.

''The county needs to take executive action and start using the bully pulpit to urge employers to schedule voting breaks at odd times a day and encourage people to early vote,'' said Jones, the Miami-Dade election consultant.

Jones' advice to voters: Study the ballot in advance so your time at the machine is used efficiently. Miami-Dade's ballot takes up to 20 separate screens, with eight proposed Florida constitutional amendments and eight county bond questions, in addition to presidential, congressional, state and local races.

Moreover, it takes longer to vote on the touch-screen machines than on the punch cards used in 2000 and earlier. ''The punch cards were really a lot faster,'' Jones said. With the electronic machines, it takes several seconds to move from one page to the next, and the voter is guided through the entire ballot whether he wants to see it or not. ''Then, of course, there is the review screen,'' Jones said.

Miami-Dade County bought 7,200 electronic voting machines. That is the same number as the old punch-card voting devices used in the last election. Because of early voting, only 6,466 machines will be available on Election Day.

''The county has known that long lines are an issue,'' said Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, chairwoman of the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition. ``They have been urged to study the voting patterns since last year.''

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