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Few glitches with new system, election officials report

By Tatsha Robertson, Globe Staff, 11/6/2002

MIAMI - Voting across the country went relatively smoothly yesterday, two years after malfunctioning machines and polling errors in South Florida threw the presidential vote into disarray and sparked national election reforms.

Despite some machines freezing up at various precincts and dozens of other machines needing to be reprogrammed, the glitches didn't compare to the problems caused in 2000 by the infamous hanging chads of the old punch-card systems. Election officers in Florida and many other states have begun replacing antiquated voting machines with high-tech election systems.

In Miami-Dade County, one of two Florida counties where the problems began in 2000, officials said yesterday that the machines at one precinct were misprogrammed, which resulted in voters automatically casting a vote for Governor Jeb Bush rather than Democratic candidate Bill McBride. For three hours, voters in another precinct had to use paper ballots.

In Broward County, 40 to 50 touchscreens had to be taken offline because software was incorrectly loaded.

But the most serious problems occurred in Georgia, which booted up 22,000 new touch-screen machines, more than any other state in the country. But ballots in at least three precincts listed the wrong county commission races, and the polls were temporarily shut down to correct the problem. In another case, a county commissioner race wasn't on the ballot.

Officials contend the problems in Georgia could result in lawsuits and contested elections.

No troubles were reported in the nation's largest county to go all-electronic: Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston. Harris County's system uses a dial to highlight names, not a touchscreen. But in Tarrant County, Texas, which includes Fort Worth, officials said tallies may not be finalized until Wednesday night because of a programming error with older-style machines.

Polling stations in Miami-Dade and Broward, Florida's most populous counties, opened early, and the new touch-screen computers worked effectively, according to state officials. Nonpartisan observers came from around the country to monitor the Sunshine State's election this year.

''We've heard of a few problems, a few glitches this morning, but nothing serious,'' said Jenny Nash, a spokeswoman with the Florida Department of State, which supervises elections. ''There were a few precincts with trouble, but that's to be expected.''

Bobbie Bringegar, president of the League of Women Voters and one of its many monitors, said the machines - which replaced the punch-card machines that resulted in miscast ballots in 2000 - were working properly. As she monitored hot lines where lawyers waited to help with any problems, she reported that the voting ''was almost without a glitch.''

The less contentious process rendered an early verdict, with Republican Governor Jeb Bush being declared the winner over Democratic lawyer Bill McBride.

The election fiasco two years ago sparked federal election reform, as well as changes at the state level in Florida, California, Colorado, Delaware, and Georgia, among other states. A 50-page report by electionline.org, a nonpartisan clearinghouse on issues relating to election reform, found that 20 states adopted statewide registration databases and new identification rules for voters.

After the 2000 election, Jeb Bush promised that the state's elections would be the envy of the country. As the primary approached this year, it looked as if that would be the case: Poll workers were trained with new procedures, the old punch cards were replaced with new ATM-style devices that identify errors, reject mistakes, and allow voters a second chance to correct errors. Millions of dollars were spent on equipment and voter education.

However, on primary day, Sept. 10, the state experienced yet another election mess.

All over South Florida, machines broke down, and in some precincts poll workers didn't show. State officials blamed Miami-Dade and Broward counties' elections officials.

''It was so bad - I had to come three times,'' said James Davis, 74, who voted at Thena C. Crowder Elementary School in Miami. ''The first time the lines were too long, the second time it was closed, and the third time the lines were long. I ended up not voting.''

The precinct in the predominantly black Liberty City area of Miami has been held as a symbol of what went wrong in September. Machines stopped working in the early afternoon and did not come up until about five hours later. But Davis returned to a more organized polling place yesterday.

''This time it went smooth. I heard so much about the controversy that I was afraid to come vote,'' said Davis.

Yesterday, well-trained poll workers were present and readily assisting voters who were unsure of the new system. Officials said voters were spending from five to 15 minutes at the polls. Technicians were also on hand.

In Broward, poor training was the biggest problem in September. Poll workers received only three hours of instruction on the new machines. None of those problems were evident yesterday.

''They got the kinks out,'' said Alonzo Samuels, a voter from Miami. ''It's much easier. You just press a button. All you do is just read and punch.''

But some voters in Miami, saying the memory of the September voting disaster was still too vivid, were not impressed and longed for the days of the old punch card.

''It's smoother, but I am looking at the chances of a malfunction. I liked the punch cards,'' said Patrick Boynton, 38.

Material from the Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.

This story ran on page A29 of the Boston Globe on 11/6/2002.

© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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