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Lines long, voting smooth in S. Florida


Millions of Floridians began playing their crucial roles in the electoral drama of 2004 today as virtually all precincts opened on time in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and voting proceeded with relative efficiency across the state.

No serious problems were reported in first two hours after polls opened at 7 a.m. EST, according to elections officials in Miami-Dade and Broward, though the usual glitches and inconveniences sometimes materialized.

''I'm looking forward to having a good day and having some good results this evening,'' said Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes.

Some people in Broward waited in line at one precinct, only to learn that their voting place recently had changed, compelling them to repeat the experience at another precinct. Broward officials reported 1,200 calls in the first hour of voting, mostly from people who went to the wrong precinct or were told they were not registered.

Two precincts in Hialeah opened about 25 minutes late, because clerks were slow to paperwork or were unfamiliar with procedures. ''Everyone kept pointing to their watches and yelling for the place to open,'' said Nayda Suarez, 33, who tried to vote at one of the sites. ``But once it opened, everyone got in quickly.''

Voters in one Miami Beach precinct and another in Liberty City complained of a paucity of machines.

Other complications seemed likely as the day progressed, the lines of waiting voters lengthened and the tallying eventually began.

Election officials and representatives of both major parties predicted a heavy turnout, with voters galvanized by the war-time presidential race between Republican incumbent George W. Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry.

Also on the statewide ticket: a particularly nasty contest between Democrat Betty Castor and Republican Mel Martinez to replace veteran U.S. Senator Bob Graham, a Democrat.

And so, in the end, Election Day began as it always does with eager voters gathering before dawn at many precincts in South Florida and around the state.

They soon began participating in participatory democracy, overcoming the doubt and worry and controversy, engaging in the genius of the American system. In addition to casting votes for president, the Senate and many other offices, they were determining the fate of eight state constitutional amendments and numerous other ballot issues.

Lines quickly formed outside numerous precincts early this morning, with many people showing up before dawn, an hour or more before voting was scheduled to begin.

Experts noted that lines do not necessarily mean problems they often simply mean that many people intend to vote.

Polls will close in South Florida and most of the state at 7 p.m. EST. In northwest Florida, voting ends at 8 p.m. EST.

''If you want to vote in this country, you gotta get in line,'' said Gene Raymond of Wilton Manors in Broward, who did just that wait in line and vote at Manor Pines Convalescent Center.

His line was about 30 people deep when he arrived but that was better than the lines he decided to skip at early voting sites during the weekend. He waited 20 minutes before the polls opened today, and then another 30 minutes to vote.

In Hialeah, Jose Armas began waiting at 4:15 a.m., setting up a chair outside his polling place on Palm Avenue. ''I always make it early,'' said Armas, 52. ``Never this early though.''

By 7 a.m., more than 200 people stood or sat in line there. Armas cast his ballot quickly and efficiently, and was on his way to work by 7:05 a.m.

In the Orlando area, about 40 people waited in line at South Trail Branch library before the polls opened. By 7:30 a.m., voters in the heavily black precinct began trickling out of the library.

Some said voting went smoothly there. ''No problem,'' said Mark Luba, 40, who showed up at 6 a.m. and was seventh in line.

Later, others complained that the lines moved too slowly. Jodi Anderson waited for 30 minutes but grew frustrated and left because she had to go to work.

''It was an extremely poor set-up,'' she said. ``I've lived in this neighborhood for 25 years. They are not prepared for the growth in this area.''

In Volusia County, which includes Daytona Beach, workers were to recount 13,244 ballots cast during early voting because a memory card failed Monday when a machine was being moved.

''We have all the ballots, and they will be counted,'' Supervisor of Elections Deanie Lowe told The Associated Press.

Still, elections officials throughout the state expressed confidence that the balloting would proceed relatively smoothly.

One reason: The astonishing popularity of early voting, which attracted two million people statewide and should have a moderating influence on the lines and delays that materialize today.

It can't be much worse than it was in 2000, when Florida's dysfunctional system left the country without a president-elect for 37 days.

Now, with the presidency at stake, Florida's 27 electoral votes crucial to both sides and the state's ability to conduct a clean election still in question, monitors from both major parties, the media and the Justice Department maintained close vigilance.

Elections officials urged voters to exercise patience and tolerance, noting that lines always form for major elections and problems are inevitable when millions of people attempt to use a system designed to work for only 12 hours a year.

''While nobody likes waiting for anything, they don't mind waiting for something as important as casting a vote in a presidential election,'' said Seth Kaplan, spokesman for Miami-Dade's elections office.

They also expressed some hope that the lines and waiting times might be tolerable today, given that 20 percent of all registered voters in the state cast early or absentee ballots.

In Miami-Dade, nearly one of every three registered voters cast ballots before the polls opened today; in Broward, about 21 percent of registered voters performed their civic duty before Election Day.

In Broward, early birds Rose and Rudolph Edwards of Hollywood arrived at McNicol Middle School at 5:30 a.m. today, and found two would-be voters already there. ''I think it is going to be bad in the afternoon,'' Rudolph Edwards said.

The couple left the polling place at 7:15 a.m. after casting their votes.

About 200 people stood in line before polls opened at the West Regional Library in Plantation, with the first voters arriving at 5:45 a.m.

Among those found there was Broward Democratic Party Chairman Mitch Ceasar, who predicted a Broward turnout similar to the 1992 presidential election, when about 80 percent of registered voters turned out. Voters at three Pembroke Pines precincts said they were generally pleased with the fast-moving lines today, especially after reading about epic waiting time at early voting sites.

''I tried to early vote four times, and every time I got there, it was a two-hour wait,'' said Rob Newman, who arrived at the Pines Recreation Center at 6 a.m. and was finished voting at 7:15 a.m. ``This was nothing. Thank god a lot of people early voted.''

At Perrine-Peters United Methodist Church in Miami-Dade, a measure of good fellowship awaited voters. A line of 80 people greeted arriving voters at 7:34 a.m., but so did two women who stood at a table that offered juice, coffee, water, and bite-sized pieces of danish pastries and coffee cakes.

''We thought there would be a line,'' one of the women said. ``We thought it was an outreach opportunity.''

It turned out that they also were advocating incorporation of the Cutler Ridge area.

Voters at Central Park Elementary in Plantation wait more than an hour, far longer than is typical at that usually quiet poll, another indication that turnout could be robust.

But, of course, there were some problems.

At a precinct at Lillie C. Evans elementary school in Liberty City, only 30 early arrivals showed up but the line moved slowly. Only four touch screen machines were there, and one did not work properly.

Some would-be voters were faced with unpopular choices: stand in line and vote, or be late for work.

Aldene Longley, a Miami-Dade schools employee, arrived at 6:30 a.m. By the time she emerged from casting her ballot at 7:45 a.m., she was steamed.

''Four machines in a major election? Only in Liberty City would they do this,'' she said. ``This is totally ridiculous.''

In the Broward city of Wilton Manors, Roxanne Vining's heart sank when she arrived at her polling place at First Christian Church around 7:40 a.m. and saw 40 people in line. She already had waited in line 45 minutes to vote at a nursing home around the corner the polling location on the registration card she had received just a month ago.

''I wanted to try and get through the lines fast,'' Vining said. ``I'm upset, because I would have voted at 7:30, and now look at this line. I'm probably going to be another hour. It's a big mistake.''

Other people didn't take the news as calmly.

One man, among the first in line at the nursing home before polls opened, learned that he, too, had to go to the church to vote. He ran to his car, shaking his head.

''I've always voted here,'' he said angrily. ``Now it's changed.''

But once inside, lines moved quickly, even with a long ballot. Most people needed about seven minutes to vote, poll workers said. To speed up the process, they distributed sample ballots for people to study as they waited.

To a large extent, the balloting was conducted in a politically charged atmosphere of suspicion, apprehension and even dread.

Four years after the electoral debacle of 2000, many of the same nettlesome and incendiary issues bedeviled voters and elections officials different voting systems and conflicting interpretations of rules from county to county, concerns over the eligibility of some felons, recruitment and training of poll workers, and the efficient distribution and processing of absentee ballots, particularly in Broward.

In response, the U.S. Justice Department dispatched more than 1,000 observers and monitors to Florida and 24 other states. Political parties, special interest groups, international organizations and the media assigned thousands of monitors to Florida precincts, though most were not allowed into actual voting sites.

Common Cause reported that it received 7,584 election-related complaints from Florida by noon Monday, including 2,974 from Broward and 1,440 from Miami-Dade.

At the same time, new issues arose that further complicated the task of running an orderly election:

? Vigorous outreach programs produced an 18 percent increase in the number of registered voters since 2000. With 10.3 million people now authorized to cast ballots in Florida, the always monumental task of building a system that could smoothly accommodate large numbers of people in a 12-hour period became even more challenging.

? Federal law now mandates provisional ballots, cast by voters whose status is in doubt and whose eligibility is assessed later. That threatened to create more congestion at voting places, delays in the final tallying of results, and considerable legal mayhem.

? Concern mounted that politically motivated poll watchers would launch numerous challenges of voters' eligibility, seeking to intimidate members of the opposition party and further clog the system.

All of that left platoons of lawyers from political parties and other special interest groups poised to flock into court at the slightest hint of real or perceived provocation.

And it left elections officials struggling to navigate a middle ground between maximum inclusion of those authorized to vote and accurate exclusion of those unauthorized to vote.

They and others noted that glitches always have occurred during elections and that the events of the last four years have heightened attention and expectations, even as it lowered the threshold for controversy.

''I think when you have 6 or 7 million people voting, it's never going to be perfect,'' Gov. Jeb Bush said before the election. ``The way you gin this up is, you create an expectation of perfection, and what they doesn't happen, you cry.''

Still, polls showed that most Floridians expected the election to run fairly smoothly. A Mason-Dixon Poll conducted in mid-October found that 72 percent of registered voters believed that all eligible voters would be able to cast ballots, and 62 percent expressed confidence that votes would be counted properly.

On the other hand, only 42 percent of registered voters had no concerns about vote fraud.

Of course, when voting ends tonight, the experience is hardly over.

By law, elections supervisors across the state have until noon Thursday to provide the state with an ''unofficial'' result from each county and that includes the tallies of absentee and provisional ballots.

Depending on the number of those ballots and the complexity of the questions, the two-day deadline could create a time crunch for election staffs, who may have to resolve a number of question.

First, they'll have to verify that provisional ballots were cast in the proper precinct. If not, the ballots are automatically rejected under a Florida law recently upheld in federal court.

They also may have to resolve questions about citizenship, criminal records, residency and the possibility of double-voting.

Alia Faraj, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Glenda Hood, said the counties and state are equipped to help answer questions in time.

The state's clemency office, for instance, is on standby to determine if the state has restored voter rights to felons who have served their time. That's a controversial issue because the state was forced to dump an error-riddled ''purge list'' of felons.

''This is what supervisors of elections deal with in every election,'' Faraj said. ``They have staff that deal with these issues. They have a process that is place and they go through this as quickly as they can.''

A final certification is due 11 days after Election Day Nov. 13 but Faraj said she believes counties are not allowed to use that window to re-evaluate questionable absentee or provisional ballots.

''You can't temporarily accept them and change later,'' she said.


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