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Voter Complaints

A Day of Waiting and Confusion

Election Officials Say Machines Generally Perform Well

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2004; Page A28

Voters from New Carrollton to Manassas Park found themselves in tediously long lines yesterday that tested their patience and set off complaints that polls were short on voting machines and experienced workers.

Some voters arrived at their precincts hours before the polls opened, only to queue up behind hundreds who had the same idea. Others bailed out after two-hour waits to go to the office, hoping to return after work. And people who searched high and low in frustration for a parking spot found tickets on their car windshields, although some police departments said they would void the tickets, given the extraordinary circumstance.


At McNair Elementary in Herndon, a monitor plays an instructional video for voters waiting to use machines. (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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Transcript: Vaughn Ververs, editor of the Hotline, discussed the 2004 election.
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Washington in Red and Blue: Compare how area residents cast their votes in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.

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Workers at local election headquarters across the region answered ringing phones for 12 straight hours as new voters and inactive voters drawn out by the presidential race asked where and if they were registered. Election officials reveled all day in pronouncing turnout records.

When Virginia polls closed at 7 p.m., election workers began a daunting count, many by hand, of more than 175,000 absentee ballots. Although President Bush won the Old Dominion handily, the out-of-town votes had to be counted last night. Election Chief Jean Jensen took them so seriously that she ordered state troopers to rush 10 ballots -- cast by soldiers overseas and mistakenly mailed to Richmond -- to their home counties in all corners of Virginia in an effort to get them counted.

The high turnout was expected, but it was complicated by the frustrations of some voters whose names were not on voter lists and those casting ballots electronically for the first time. In some precincts, poll workers failed to offer provisional ballots to voters whose names were not in poll books, causing disputes that were eventually resolved, officials said.

Electronic voting machines, new to hundreds of thousands of voters in Maryland and Virginia yesterday, broke down in scattered locations, stalling long lines. Most were put back into service relatively quickly, officials said.

Some Montgomery County voters complained that polling places had only three-fifths as many voting machines as they did in 2000, adding to the long waits. The state allocated one touch-screen machine for each 200 voters this year, compared with Montgomery County's standard of one punch card machine for each 125 voters in 2000, election officials said. Industry officials had originally suggested that the state use a ratio of 1 to 300, but the state wanted more machines on hand to speed the process, said Joe Torre, the state's voter systems certification coordinator.

Donna Duncan, director of the election management division for the Maryland Board of Elections, said yesterday that the state's new Diebold machines came through with what she regarded as routine problems. "All in all, the machines performed very well," she said. "We have no concerns about the integrity of the process."

Fairfax officials said they were relieved to oversee a relatively smooth election after the general registrar came under scrutiny over reported disorganization in her office. Touch-screen machines that debuted last November to myriad problems had only minor hang-ups this year, and those were resolved quickly. "I can honestly tell you, we got very few complaints about the machines today," Margaret K. Luca, secretary to the electoral board, said.

Things ran less smoothly in Calvert County, where the local Democratic Party successfully challenged election officials who had refused provisional ballots to voters who could not prove they were registered in Maryland.

But not before John L. Zalusky, 70, of Drum Point, a poll observer for the Democrats, had been escorted out of the Patuxent High School precinct by three law enforcement officers. He had told election officials that a voter who was not on the rolls ought to get a provisional ballot. Zalusky said the officials called him a disturbance.

"I've never been treated this badly," he said, adding that he had been an international observer of elections in Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia and Belarus.

Anthony Williamson, 33, a National Guardsman who returned in April from the war in Iraq, said he also had a problem voting. When he showed up at his polling place in Severn about 1:15 p.m., election officials told him his name was not on the rolls.

Aware of the provisional ballot law, he asked for one but said he was denied. Finally, after contacting a lawyer who called the state Board of Elections on his behalf, he was able to cast a provisional ballot. "I don't undertsand how that could be," he said. "I voted in the 2000 election."

In the District, some voters ran into problems yesterday morning when machines used to scan and tally the paper ballots jammed.

At Rabaut Junior High School in Ward 4's Precinct 54, election workers frantically called downtown for help. At one point, they unplugged the machine, opened it and started encouraging people to put their ballots inside to be held and counted later.

"I don't know what happened to the ballots already in there," said Melany Hughes, who waited almost two hours to cast her vote. "It was so frustrating. . . . People got tired of waiting and left."

Board of Elections spokesman Bill O'Field said that machines were down for only a few minutes and that all the ballots left there were eventually scanned.


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