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Complaints mar debut of voter check-in system in Broward

David Fleshler | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
    January 30, 2008

A new voter check-in system made its Broward County debut this election, causing long lines at some polls Tuesday as workers struggled with the unfamiliar equipment.

The Electronic Voter iDentification system, which resembles a computerized cash register, requires elections workers to confirm voters' eligibility by swiping each voter's driver's license like a credit card.

The new machines were intended to bring speed and accuracy to the work of verifying voter records, a process that nearly broke down in the 2004 presidential election when the Elections Office tried to use a phone bank for that purpose, Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes said.

   At many polls, the system worked as smoothly as a grocery store checkout line. But since there were far fewer check-in machines than voting machines, the new devices created bottlenecks at some locations. And at some polling places, would-be voters watched in frustration as workers puzzled over the new equipment and placed calls to technical support staff.

At the voter-rich Century Village condominium complexes in Deerfield Beach and Pembroke Pines, long lines led many would-be voters to give up and go home.

"There are people who will never come back to vote," said Marvin Rietberg, of Century Village in Pembroke Pines. "I know it. We have people in wheelchairs, with walkers. It's a big deal for them to get to the clubhouse."

A similar problem took place at the King's Point condominiums in Tamarac.

"We saw people who had to leave the lines because they couldn't stay that long," resident Mona Sherman said. "We have many people who are disabled, who use walkers and canes. They were frustrated."

Turnout was high, with initial figures put at 37 percent, the highest for a primary since 24 percent for the 2000 primary.

Every election has glitches, such as ballot problems and missing voter information. Aside from the difficulties with the new voter check-in machines, it's unclear whether this election had an unusual number of problems. A few voters complained of problems with party registration, a critical matter in Florida where only registered party members may vote in primaries.

David Nirenberg, of Coral Springs, said he is a registered independent and showed up only to vote on the property tax amendment, not the presidential primary. But poll workers, over his protests, insisted he had to vote as either a Republican or a Democrat, he said, so he chose Republican and cast a ballot for John McCain.

The voter check-in machines are sold by VR Systems Inc., a Tallahassee company whose Web page says the machines are in use in 25 Florida counties. The Elections Office spent about $1 million on nearly 1,000 of the machines, Snipes said.

Although poll workers were able to use the machines effectively during early voting, many encountered problems operating them Tuesday, she said. Other than those problems, she said, the election went well.

When reports came in of lines at the condominiums, she dispatched extra workers and machines, and the lines cleared up. Now, thanks to this experience, she will make sure poll workers are better trained on the new machines.

"We did have long lines," she said. "They didn't melt down the election. We know now what to anticipate,"

And many voters said their experiences at the polls went quickly and without problems.

Staff Writer Lisa J. Huriash contributed to this report.

David Fleshler can be reached at dfleshler@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4535.

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