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Miami-Dade County Continues to Experience Balloting Problems - 2002-10-22

Two years after the presidential election debacle in Florida, Miami-Dade County continues to experience balloting problems that have become an embarrassment for the region and the state. County elections officials are taking unprecedented measures to ensure an accurate tabulation of votes, including enlisting outside monitors to observe next month's elections.

On November 5, balloting in Miami-Dade County will proceed under the watchful eyes of observers from the U.S. Justice Department and the Washington-based Center for Democracy.

In fact, the voting has already begun. Monday, 14 polling stations opened in the county, more than two weeks early. Elections Supervisor David Leahy said new computerized voting machines were up and running on time. "This morning we came in, entered the passwords and unlocked them [voting machines]," said David Leahy. "Everything was ready at seven o'clock, and that is how we expect things to go on November 5, as well."

To understand why Miami-Dade is allowing the early vote, one has to go back to the 2000 presidential election, when balloting problems in several Florida counties caused Americans to wait more than five weeks to learn who their next president would be.

Eager to avoid a repeat, Florida junked decades-old manual "punch card" voting machines in favor of new electronic ones with view screens similar to those found at automated teller machines at banks.

But the high-tech solution has brought a new set of problems that became all too apparent during primary elections last month. Many poll workers did not know how to operate the machines, which come with an instruction manual not unlike those that accompany personal computers. As a result, numerous polling stations opened late, and some not at all, leading to a significant underreporting of election results.

Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Party's nomination for governor of Florida, detailed some of the problems during a local hearing. "On primary election day, my office received over 320 complaints from voters who experienced problems while voting or attempting to vote," said Janet Reno. "First, of course, was [the problem of] the polls not opening. There were also machine failures at polling locations; they broke down and in many cases were inoperable for many hours. We received numerous reports from voters who had selected one candidate for a given race, only to find that another candidate was registered by the machine and displayed on the review screen."

A report by the American Civil Liberties Union shows that polling stations that experienced the most severe problems were disproportionately located in predominantly African American precincts, leading to a pronounced undercount of the black vote.

For residents and observers alike, the problems evoked memories of the year 2000 presidential debacle. Responding to a torrent of criticism, Miami-Dade County elections officials vowed to provide better training to poll workers and promised that the November 5 vote will go as smoothly as humanly possible. Assistant elections supervisor Gisela Salas. "You certainly cannot blame the public for feeling that there are inadequacies in the process and that there are things that need to be rectified," she said. "And we totally agree with them. We are ready to do what we have to do to make November a successful election."

At the same time, the county is taking no chances. The early voting program is designed to allow everyone to cast their ballots at their leisure, well ahead of time, thereby reducing the potential effects of any election day mishaps.

Several hundred people showed up to vote Monday. Many, like Ellis Guy, are African Americans who said they wanted to make sure that their vote would count. Mr. Guy said he was able to cast his ballot, but only after a delay. "They had a glitch [problem] in the system; they only had one machine up [running]," he said. "They had to work to try to find out what the problem was."

Miami-Dade County has taken another unprecedented step: hiring the Washington-based Center for Democracy to monitor the November 5 vote. Such observers are usually dispatched to emerging democracies, and their arrival in Miami is seen by many residents as a shameful commentary on the county's ability to hold a fair election.

The Center for Democracy's Allen Weinstein says local officials are working hard to correct balloting problems, but adds that it is too early to tell whether those efforts will succeed. "It remains to be seen as to whether the bulk of the problems, no election is perfect, but whether the bulk of the problems seem to have been addressed in a serious way," said Allen Weinstein."

Last week, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it, too, will dispatch observers to Florida for the November 5 vote. A total of 20 civil rights attorneys are to monitor balloting in Miami-Dade and two other counties in the state.