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As voting begins, first reports of technical troubles, late openings

By Anick Jesdanun
The Associated Press  02 November 2004

 Polling places experienced scattered problems early today as legions of lawyers, election-rights activists and computer scientists watched, particularly in battleground states, for any trouble that could disenfranchise voters.

New rules, new voters and a tight presidential contest combined to create "a recipe for problems," said Sean Greene, who was assigned to watch Cleveland polls for the Election Reform Information Project, a nonpartisan research group on election reform.

Nearly one in three voters, including about half of those in Florida, were expected to cast ballots using ATM-style voting machines that computer scientists have criticized for their potential for software glitches, hacking and malfunctioning.

Other major concerns were over provisional ballots, new this presidential election and a potential source of delayed counts, and whether poll workers were adequate and sufficiently trained.

Long lines greeted voters in many big cities in closely contested states: Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Columbus, Ohio, Detriot and elsewhere. Five locations in Franklin County, Ohio, opened up to a half-hour late because poll workers did not show up on time.

In Essex, Md., an election judge left a polling place briefly, saying he forgot something at home. Voters who had to wait were allowed to vote by provisional ballot.

One polling location in Mauldin, S.C., was forced to switch to paper ballots because of equipment troubles.

In Volusia County, Fla., a memory card in an optical-scan voting machine failed Monday at an early voting site and didn't count 13,000 ballots. Officials planned to feed and count those ballots today.

Chellie Pingree, president of the citizens lobbying group Common Cause, said she feared poll workers faced with long lines would be pressured to make quick but bad interpretations on rules governing registration validity and identification requirements.

"There's no question it's going to be a high turnout," Pingree said. "It's going to just add more confusion to already overburdened, understaffed polling places, many of which will have as many lawyers and poll challengers as they have people voting."

By mid-morning EST, an online and phone hotline maintained by nonpartisan and liberal voting-rights activists logged more than 1,650 items, mostly related to complaints or questions about registrations and polling locations. But some voters in New York and Pennsylvania complained to the hotline of troubles with non-electronic machines. 
During the March primaries in California and Maryland, software bugs and inexperienced poll workers accidentally eliminated some races and allowed voters to cast ballots for contests in wrong precincts.

VerifiedVoting.org, a group of e-voting critics organized by Stanford University professor David Dill, has recruited more than 1,300 technology professionals to serve as poll monitors today.

Both parties had thousands of lawyers dispatched and on call to respond to the first sign of trouble.

In a decision early today, a federal appeals court cleared the way for political parties to challenge voters' eligibility at polling places throughout Ohio.

A key problem is the lack of a unified voting system for the nation, the legacy of a patchwork of balloting technologies, regulations, partisan bickering and litigation.

Among other problems, Ohio Republicans had sought over the past week to challenge some 35,000 voters, saying mail to them was returned undelivered, while in Colorado, GOP poll watchers complained that election officials in a Democratic stronghold failed to require early voters to produce identification.

A federal law passed in response to the 2000 election mess required states to offer provisional, or backup, ballots to voters who find they are not listed on the rolls, or whose eligibility is somehow in question. The ballots are set aside and evaluated after the election ? they could take 10 days or longer to resolve.

But states have interpreted the law differently. Millions of newly registered voters may wrongly assume they can vote at any precinct in their city, town or county. State officials and courts have disagreed on whether provisional ballots are valid when a voter is at the wrong precinct.

The measure also requires first-time voters who registered by mail to provide identification when they show up at the polls, though disputes have arisen over whether to extend that to all first-time registrants and what documents count.

Add to that confusion: absentee ballots.

More than a dozen states missed the recommended deadline to mail ballots overseas, and in Florida's Broward County, thousands of absentee ballots went missing or got delayed.

As for electronic voting, many of the problems ? whether accidental or intentional ? may not be known until well after today ? if at all. Most of the ATM-style machines, including all of Florida's, lack paper records that could be used to verify the electronic results in a recount.

Florida requires state election administrators to count ? and, if necessary, recount ? an election within 11 days. But lawsuits could drag out the results for weeks, even forcing the courts to decide the outcome.

Four years ago, the Supreme Court intervened in a recount after 36 days, handing George W. Bush a 537-vote victory in Florida and with it the presidency.

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