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By JENNIFER SORENTRUE and HECTOR FLORIN Palm Beach Post Staff Writers Saturday, January 26, 2008

Several Palm Beach County voters who tried to cast ballots early Friday were turned away, and others were forced to spend extra time at the polls because of a computer problem at early voting sites.

The wireless Internet cards that poll workers use to quickly verify voters' political affiliation, which ballot they should receive and whether they are actually registered to vote stopped working properly for about three hours late Friday morning.

Because of the problem, poll workers had to call the supervisor of elections office to verify each voter's status. Nearly all elections office employees were reassigned to field the calls, officials said.

The problem won't affect Tuesday's election because wireless cards are used only during early voting when residents can vote an any sites. They are not used at neighborhood precincts. But Friday voters were forced to wait as poll workers called the office. Several said there were told to come back later.

Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Arthur Anderson called the problem a "little glitch" and said it caused only a "slight inconvenience."

"I know that none of the sites were closed down, so people had the option of waiting," Anderson said. "All of the sites continued to function. The process was slowed down at that time.

"This was just one of those incidents that occurred unexpectedly and unforeseeably," he added. "We would not expect any difficulties" on Tuesday.

Still, Friday's glitch was a painful reminder of the problems the supervisor of elections office has experienced since 2000, when the infamous "butterfly ballot" began the presidential election fiasco.

Six years later, Anderson endured two days of criticism for failing to list precinct totals as votes were counted. The omission, attributed to a computer glitch, blocked candidates and the public from tracking the progress of races.

Last year, a software glitch led to inaccurate results displayed for some municipal races. The software company that designed the county's elections Web site took the blame.

The most recent problem occurred just four days before Tuesday's election, which includes the presidential primary and a ballot question on property tax relief. Officials have seen a dramatic surge in both the number of early voters and requests for absentee ballots.

Touch-screen voting machines were not affected by the computer problem, elections officials said. None of the votes that had already been cast was lost, they added.

The wireless connection was lost because of a problem with Verizon, which provides wireless connections for the supervisor of elections office and all county field employees, said Mike Butler, the county's director of network services. The problem affected employees using wireless cards, including several in fire rescue and planning and zoning.

It started around 10:30 a.m. Friday - about half an hour after polls opened. By about 1:30 p.m., county officials had re-routed the connection and restored service. The problem was repaired at about 3:30 p.m., Butler said.

Chuck Hamby, a Verizon Wireless spokesman based in Florida, initially denied that the problem was caused by its system, but later said the company were still trying to identify how it occurred. Poll workers could connect to the Internet but could not link to the elections main computer server, Hamby said.

Kirk Bodick of suburban Boynton Beach tried to vote Friday morning at the county library west of Boynton Beach and was told to come back today.

"They basically told me they had a total network failure," said Bodick, 52.

About 10 people were in line waiting to vote, Bodick said, and other people were entering the polling location.

"You'd think of all the things we've been through, they'd have some backup system," Bodick said.

West Palm Beach resident Jenny Heyman said she was also turned away when she tried to vote at the Okeechobee branch library. She was told the computers were down and to try back later.

"It seemed pretty cut and dry," Heyman said. "There was no, 'Let me get your info, and we'll call it in.''"

She said she browsed the library for about 15 minutes, but the system was still down. She plans to try to vote again today.

"It was just a hassle," Heyman said.

At the main library on Summit Boulevard, Peter Labadie said he had come to vote earlier with no success, "but then they figured out how to use a telephone."

The verification only took a few extra minutes, he said.

As of Wednesday evening, more than 28,000 people had voted early. By Friday, more than 66,000 absentee ballots had been requested.

Early voting continues through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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