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Voters turn out in force for historic campaign  (TX)

ALAN BERNSTEIN and ALLAN TURNER   Houston Chronicle   20 October 2008

Energized by disputes over a collapsing economy, foreign wars, a female vice-presidential hopeful and a historic first African-American presidential candidate, thousands of area voters trooped to the polls this morning for the first day of early balloting.

The result was part exercise in statesmanship, part circus. But it clearly seemed a day few of the participants would forget. As of 1 p.m., Harris County early voting totals had already surpassed the first-day total in 2004 of 20,868, according to the County Clerk's office.

Lines began forming long before the polls opened at 8 a.m., and tempers ran short at a few locations as glitches caused delays in the process.

Harris County election officials said the problems were not widespread and were being resolved.

Among the problems was a malfunction in the machines that scan voters' identification  at the Acres Homes Multi-Service Center, where about 300 people stood in line waiting to cast ballots this morning.

"This is inexcusable," U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said as she talked with voters and officials at the polling place. "I came out here just expecting to shake people's hands and it's pandemonium."

Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Houston, complained that election officials had plenty of time to prepare and should have been able to avoid such problems.

The malfunction was resolved after about 90 minutes, but heavy voter turnout led to long lines at the center at 6719 W. Montgomery.

Another electronic problem halted voting in the polling place at the Houston Community College Southeast Campus about 10:30 a.m.

About 20 voters were in line at the site, at 6815 Rustic, when election worker Cruz Lemus announced that the connection to the system at the Harris County Clerk's Office had been lost.

Lemus said election workers were trying to get permission to turn their equipment off and then on again in hopes of re-establishing the connection, but she could not estimate how long the delay would last.

County Clerk Beverly Kaufman said she was unaware of that problem, but added: "It's Monday morning blues, Monday morning jitters and we have some problems to work out. But I'm confident that, by noon, we will be at 100 percent."

Kaufman said about 6,000 people cast ballots in the first two hours of voting, mostly without problems.

At the East End Multi-Service Center, where Kaufman cast her own ballot, a printer malfunctioned and workers had to check her in by hand.

In response to reports from other locations that electronic voting machines were reversing votes cast in the presidential election, she said, "We tested those aspects of the system in a formal way with party officials and that did not occur. I still cannot urge people enough to check your work and keep your focus on what you're doing."

Her office was informed early today that some of the first voters had cast straight-ticket Democratic ballots and then discovered that the electronic machines listed them as voting for John McCain in the presidential election.

Hector de Leon, spokesman for the County Clerk's Office, said problems such as those reported with the identification scanning system likely reflected poll workers' inexperience in operating the new equipment.

"The system reads a bar code and it's meant to expedite the process," he said. "Voters can still be processed in the regular way."

De Leon noted that, while about 6,000 voters had turned out in the first two hours of balloting today, a total of about 20,000 voters cast ballots on the first day of early voting in the 2004 elections.

"Usually, on the first day of early voting and on Election Day, we experiernce some minor problems," de Leon said. "We find the phones or the printers weren't properly connected. But by noon, things generally are running smoothingly."

The heavy turnout in some locations contrasted sharply with the early hours at Ripley House, a charter school on Navigation on the city's east side, where volunteers outnumbered voters and there was no waiting to cast ballots.

Sandra Cruz, 34, an administrative assistant, brought her 3-year-old daughter along.

"I didn't want to be caught up in the chaos of last-minute voting," said Cruz, who had the day off.

Poll workers said about five people were waiting to vote when they opened this morning.

The first voters at Palm Center, in the 5300 block of Griggs Road on Houston's south side, arrived at 5:30 a.m. — more than two hours before the polls opened.

By 7 a.m., the line had grown to about 100. Spirits were high and those waiting cheerfully critiqued the candidates and weighed the issues.

State Rep. Rick Noriega voted for himself in the U.S. Senate race this morning, saying he was trying to make the point that all voters should vote early to avoid any problems on Nov. 4.

"Mañana is today," the Democrat said. "We have to take our destiny and grab it and run with it."

Noriega voted along with his parents, Joe and Tommie, at the Houston Community College Southeast Campus in the district he serves in the Texas House of Representatives, as well as the neighborhood in which he grew up.

The early voting lines were short at the polling station, in contrast to reports that some of the other 35 locations in the county were deluged with early voters.

Noriega's election opponents include Republican incumbent John Cornyn.

Early voting started out ``heavy all over'' in Galveston County today, said elections director Douglas Godinich. He said things were going smoothly.

With 14 early voting sites, and two more to be opened over the weekend, Godinich said the county expects the heaviest early voting turnout it has ever had.

Galveston County voters can cast early votes at any of the 14 sites, no matter where their home precincts are, Godinich said. On election day, when lines are expected to be much longer, voters must cast ballots in their home precinct.

In Brazoria County 1,196 votes had been cast by 11 a.m. and seemed to be heading toward topping the 3,140 total votes cast the first day of early voting four years ago, said Susan Cloudt, the county's head election clerk. No major problems had been reported.

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