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Balloting Blunders 
Published Saturday, October 30, 2004   Boca Raton News
by Dale M. King

Palm Beach County election officials have yet to work the kinks out of early voting.

With lines topping four hours and dozens of missing or incorrect absentee ballots in question, local officials fear the early voting fiasco is only a foreshadowing of what’s to come.

“It’s very discouraging to think that these kinds of mistakes are happening during the early voting process,” said state Rep. Adam Hasner. Hasner personally escorted three unhappy voters to the Supervisor of Elections office in West Palm Beach Friday afternoon.

One woman received an absentee ballot with only one page, said Hasner.

A spokesman from Supervisor of Elections Therea LePore’s office said the ballot was stuffed incorrectly in the envelope.

Another woman visited an early voting site in West Boca, but after she finished voting, Hasner said she realized the touch-screen hadn’t given her the option to vote on the two referendums for Boca Raton or for state House District 87.

“They basically said this is human error, meaning she was given the wrong ballot because the computer was programmed for the wrong ballot,” said Hasner.

“But she can’t re-vote because it was a mistake. They said they would try to put forces into place to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

But Hasner said he found the excuse unacceptable.

“Their voting rights are being disenfranchised because they’re not being allowed to vote with the proper ballots. At best, it’s incompetence. At worst, it’s an intentional attempt to disenfranchise voters from voting the proper ballot.”

Hasner blamed the mistakes on “lack of qualified personnel administering the process at the supervisor of elections office and the early voting locations.”

Meanwhile, the seemingly endless lines at early voting sites hasn’t improved the level of animosity among voters.

As a result, the waiting time at some polling places on Friday was longer than ever – more than five hours. Shouting matches at voting spots have become common – and vandalism is rampant.

The situation is so bad that the city of Boca Raton has instituted a voter intimidation hotline. Mayor Steven Abrams, normally an even-tempered man, fired off a personal email to the news media to say he was “disgusted – and will not tolerate it any more.”

“I don’t care if you are supporting Bush, Kerry or the Socialist Worker candidate, if you are lawfully exercising your First Amendment rights, you don’t deserve” to be threatened.

Boca Raton set up the hotline after several campaign-related incidents. Abrams said a Boca Raton police cruiser was spray-painted while it was parked at the home of a Boca officer who lives in Boynton Beach.

In addition, he said, rocks were thrown at placard-carrying campaigners – and car windshields were smashed. The mayor said a man was arrested several days ago for assault during an appearance by former New York Mayor Ed Koch at Temple Beth El in Boca Raton.

As Abrams explained it to the Boca Raton News, “Mayor Koch had just given his speech and was taking questions. A man got up, asked a question and Mayor Koch answered. But the man kept on talking. Mayor Koch said, ‘Next,” but the man kept talking.”

A person sitting next to the microphone got up, Abrams said, grabbed the questioner and threw him to the floor.

“We called police who arrested him,” said the Boca mayor.

Incidents rampant

“These are not the only incidents,” he said. “Others are happening – on both sides. It’s ugly. I haven’t seen anything like it before.”

With a hotline, the mayor said, “we hope to nip it in the bud.”

The hotline number is 561-416-3333. It was activated at 8 a.m. on Thursday and will continue in operation until the polls close at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.

A task force has also been set up in the county to maintain security and order at the polls. Supervisor of Elections Theresa LePore told reporters at a news conference Friday that the Election Security Task Force headed by Palm Beach Police Chief Michael Reiter has been set up to “provide a safe and orderly general election on Nov. 2.”

Several developments have increased the need for security, among them, campaign misbehavior, the large number of poll watchers coming in from around the nation and the large number of “eyes” being trained on Palm Beach County for its first presidential election since the disastrous showing of 2000.

The combination seems to be taking a toll on the population. LePore said her staff is extremely edgy. They are getting threatening phone calls, she said. And in one case, a person came in to the supervisor’s office, approached a clerk, grabbed the lanyard around her neck and pulled the woman.

“My sense is the public is very passionate about the candidates,” said Judge Barry Cohen, chairman of the Palm Beach County Election Commission. “I voted early in Royal Palm Beach. The line was longer than I expected. I could feel there was serious acrimony among the voters.”

He said he feels the problem is worsening because of the presence of national media. “The way the election is being reported nationally is almost an invitation to a self-fulfilling prophecy.” He said it appeared national reporters hope Palm Beach County voters embarrass themselves again.

The man who held Cohen’s job in 2000 – Judge Charles Burton – sees problems ahead in Tuesday’s voting, though they aren’t related to a “butterfly ballot” or “hanging chads” like they were four years ago.

“I think there will be problems with the touch-screen voting machines if there needs to be a recount.” He also said efforts to ease restrictive voting laws have actually opened the door to legal challenges.

“I hear stories of lawyers coming to the state every day.” He anticipates a lot of litigation and a lot of challenges to things like “voter registrations and provisional ballots.”

Nasty campaigners

A couple of men caused a ruckus outside the polling place at 345 Congress Ave. in Delray Beach Friday, according to Betty Holland, a Bush supporter who was staffing a campaign booth near the polling place.

She said a man wearing a t-shirt that say “Presi-dunce Bush” walked by her booth and let loose with a spate of obscenities. She called him on it, but he continued to use foul language.

A deputy sheriff came out of the polling place and told him to leave.

Soon afterward, another man with campaign signs that Holland said made vulgar references to President Clinton came by. “I told him I will not have these signs here,” she said. “I am a lady and I will not tolerate it.”

In response, she said, the man said, “I’ll tell you what I think of Bush” and he grabbed his crotch. She said she did not want to press charges.

Early voting hasn’t helped the situation. After nearly two weeks, lines are still long, equipment problems are still being reported and glitches continue.

The early voting system will continue today, Sunday and Monday, said LePore. Polling places will be open today and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. and will close at 5 p.m. on Monday. The regular polling places will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Election Day Tuesday.

Palm Beach County doesn’t seem to have a lock on election troubles. In Miami-Dade, tensions are mounting as politicians trade accusations over claims of fraud, missing absentee ballots and concerns that thousands of voter registrations may be challenged on Election Day.

The GOP has said that 925 convicted felons without voting rights have either voted or requested absentee ballots.

Missing absentees

In Broward County, the worst voting election-related problem seems to be with late-arriving absentee ballots. Election workers had sent 1,000 ballots via overnight shipment and were scheduled on Friday to send another 14,000 to residents who requested them a week earlier.

“Intimidation of voters” and missing ballots are being checked in the Jacksonville area. A team of international observers from the Voting Justice Project of Pax Christini USA and the NAACP are preparing to observe the elections there on Tuesday – and say they will challenge anything that doesn’t appear to be by the book.

Some fingers are being pointed at the U.S. Postal Service for mishandling ballots. While officials are denying it, one district manager, Butch Parker, sent an internal memo saying that ballots had sat idle in postal facilities rather than being returned to their senders.

In Palm Beach County, LePore on Friday issued a ruling that will help some out-of-state Floridians get absentee ballots in time to vote.

She said that people who requested ballots but never got them can FAX an application to her office. After that, a designated person can pick it up and overnight mail it to the voter, who can overnight mail it back.

LePore said she does not have the money to send the ballots by overnight delivery.

She acknowledged on Friday that she has a box of ballots returned “with the wrong address.” LePore said she doesn’t know how many are in it because she and her staff haven’t had time to look.

Donna Holland of Boca Raton complained to the Boca Raton News this week that her daughter who attends college out of state did not get the absentee ballot she asked for. Mom was able to get one for her, but had to wait four hours in line.

“My problem is resolved,” Holland said. “But I met 12 people in the community who are still having a problem. This is an issue that really needs to be addressed.”

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