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South Florida Conquers 2000 Voting Problems in Latest Election - 2002-11-08

Two days after U.S. elections, officials in Broward County, Florida, just north of Miami, say they have fixed a computer problem that caused a temporary undercount of 100,000 votes. Despite the glitch, officials and observers alike say, overall, voting went smoothly in south Florida. The region appears to have recovered from the embarrassment of the 2000 presidential election.

Two years ago, balloting problems in south Florida sparked recounts, street demonstrations and court battles as Americans had to wait five weeks to learn who their next president would be. Tuesday's by-election was different.

"The voting machine was easy for me to use. I did not have any problems at all." said Miami resident Marla Baker. Ms. Baker said she had feared long lines, delays and confusion, but was pleasantly surprised when she cast her ballot. "You see how quickly I am out of there [the polling station]? But I did what I had to do!," she said.

Just two months ago, during primary elections, south Florida suffered yet another black eye as poll workers struggled to operate new, electronic voting machines. Many polling stations opened late and some not at all. Residents fumed; local officials were embarrassed and pledged to do better.

But on election night Tuesday, Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas breathed a sigh of relief. "We had a major embarrassment on September 10. I have always believed that in the most negative of situations something positive can come out of it. We learned how to do it right. We are not going to be the butt of jokes," he said.

In the aftermath of the disastrous primary vote, Miami-Dade took the unprecedented step of hiring observers from the Washington-based Center for Democracy to monitor preparations for Tuesday's balloting, as well as the election.

The group's president is Allen Weinstein, who previously observed elections in Haiti and the Philippines. Mr. Weinstein says officials in Miami-Dade made a Herculean effort to improve balloting in the county.

"Miami-Dade authorities explained to voters how to use the new system; they provided training for the poll workers; they brought in thousands of new employees to run the election; and they brought in people who could handle the technology," he said.

Also observing Tuesday's voting was Russia's top election official, Alexander Veshnyakov, who said voters in Miami did not appear to be jaded by past problems.

"I can say that my impression is that the mood of the voters coming to the polling sites is very positive, as far as I can see. They are ready to participate and they take it seriously," he said.

Tuesday's voting did not go perfectly, with several voting machine breakdowns and malfunctions reported in Miami-Dade County. But observers note that rapid response teams were quickly dispatched to fix the problems as they arose. "Miami-Dade now becomes a model for how to resolve these problems. So, it goes from being a poster-child of the problem to a poster-child of the solution," said Allen Weinstein of the Center for Democracy's .

Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas says he believes good can come of past balloting problems, not only in south Florida, but across the nation.

"We are in a new era of elections, not only in this community, but really around the country. After the 2000 voting debacle there has been a renewed emphasis on making sure that everybody gets to vote and that every vote counts," he said. "We went through some growing pains [with new equipment] on September 10, and I understand some other communities are going through that in other parts of the country today," he said.

Mayor Penelas says, after weathering vicious ridicule two years ago, he hopes Miami-Dade will get the credit it deserves for Tuesday's elections.