Early Voters in Fla. Find Long Lines, a Bit of Muddle

By Steven A. Holmes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2008

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. -- After standing for more than an hour outside his polling place earlier this week, Dick Rosenow finally gave up when it started raining. He returned the next day, but again the line snaked around the branch library in this town south of Palm Beach. He waited an hour before he could cast his ballot.

"It's not the workers' fault," said Rosenow, a retired management consultant. "It's the technology. It's the equipment that's causing the trouble."

Early voting began this week in Florida and, as Rosenow discovered, with it came long waits, balky voting machines, complaints about too few polling places and some confusion about state election law. All of this raised fears that Nov. 4 could bring even bigger problems to a state whose history of voting difficulties includes the deadlocked 2000 election that ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Florida is one of more than two dozen states where voters are allowed to cast ballots in person before Nov. 4, as well as others where ballots can be mailed in. The ballots are then held until Election Day to be counted.

Around the country, there have been scattered reports of long lines of early voters, but not to the extent that appeared in Florida this week. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) and other state officials, however, say that early voting is going well and that any relatively minor difficulties do not hint at problems on Election Day.

"I'm not troubled by it. We anticipated long lines," said Kurt S. Browning, Florida's secretary of state. "This is an election that is generating a lot of interest, and people want the opportunity to vote early."

The possibility that as many as one-third of Florida's voters may cast ballots early or through the mail, the officials argue, will relieve pressure on polling places that day.

There is little doubt that interest is driving up the number of people voting. Florida has added 1 million registrations since January, and many county election officials report record turnout in early voting.

But some of the difficulties in early voting also stem from election law in Florida.

In 2005, the Republican-dominated state legislature, over the objection of the county election supervisors who run the balloting, passed laws limiting polling places to city halls, the main offices of county election boards and public libraries. County election officials wanted to expand that list to include community centers, health clinics, recreational centers and other public facilities.

Under state law, early voters can cast ballots in any precinct in their county. But that means polling places may need different ballots if they get voters from more than one city, school board district or congressional district. In Palm Beach County, for example, poll workers had to be ready to print out 185 types of ballots depending on voters' addresses. On top of that, the state legislature in 2005 scaled back weekday polling times for early voting from 12 hours to 8.

The result has been the long waits. On Tuesday, for example, one polling site in Miami-Dade County closed its doors at the state-mandated time of 3 p.m. Some of those who made it in before the doors were shut did not finish voting until 8 that night.

"I got here at 10:30 this morning, and I just voted," said Mae Simmons, a clerk at Wal-Mart, as she left the polling place at the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale a little after 3 p.m. Monday.

State and county officials say the situation on Election Day will be quite different. People can vote only in their home precincts, so everyone can use the same ballot. Hours of operations will be longer and the number of polling places statewide will go from the 267 open for early voting to 6,913.

Still, some worries remain.

Fifteen of the state's largest counties have switched from touch-screen voting machines to optical scanners, which read paper ballots, leaving a paper trail. In some counties, that marks the third method of voting in eight years, each requiring retesting and retraining of staff.

Past transitions have not always gone well. In the 2002 primary, when Miami-Dade moved from punch cards to touch screens, lack of familiarity with the machines caused workers to open voting sites several hours late.

Two months ago, poll workers in Palm Beach County discovered after a recount of a close primary race that a number of boxes of ballots had been inadvertently excluded from the tallying.

"You've got an all-volunteer workforce that is undertrained, often uncomfortable with technology, and you have voters who are also unfamiliar with the election system," said Jonah Goldman, director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections. "When you put all those ingredients together, it's not surprising that the recipe doesn't always come out tasting so good."

Activists and some county election officials worry that the state's new "No Match, No Vote" law may cause delays or even prevent some voters from casting regular ballots.

Under the law, which went into effect last month after a federal court cleared the way, people who registered to vote after Sept. 8 had to show a driver's license, official state identification or the last four digits of their Social Security number. When that information was compared to other official data, it produced roughly 14,000 mismatches, largely the result of conflicting Social Security numbers, according to Browning's office.

The law requires election officials to notify those with mismatched information, but if the discrepancies are not cleared up, there is no consistent policy among counties on what to do with those who show up to vote on Election Day.

According to the secretary of state's office, they should be allowed to cast a provisional ballot only and will have two days to bring in documents in order to have their vote counted. But a lawyer representing the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections issued an opinion saying that people who bring documentation to the polls should be allowed to cast a regular ballot.

The number of people expected to be caught in that situation will be relatively small, officials predict. But some activists argue that problems like this could still be critical.

"If you're talking about a really close race and you have six-hour lines or people who can't vote in a really key state, that could decide the election," Goldman said. "The thing we forget about the 2000 election is that the vast majority of people in the country had no voting problems at all."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company