A Smooth Florida Election? Not Quite

There were only a few campaign workers and even fewer voters at the Hollywood, Fla. Beach Community Center Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2008 during Florida's primary election day. There are no statewide elections and voter turn out is expected to be light.(AP Photo/J. Pat Carter)
AP Photo/J. Pat Carter
There were familiar signs of an election in Florida Tuesday during that state's primary: voter frustration, problems with ballots and software issues resulting in delays in tabulating votes.

Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning said six precincts did not open on time Tuesday morning, out of nearly 7,000 precincts, but he said all were open by 7:30 a.m. and no voters were turned away.

Two polling places in Palm Beach County were locked up, so firefighters were dispatched to break in.

Hillsborough voter Mark Ferguson said when he went to his precinct, at the West Tampa Convention Center, at 7 a.m. he couldn't get in.

When he asked poll workers why he couldn't go in to vote, he said he was told the paper ballots weren't going into the machines properly.

"I thought, oh my gosh, if they're having problems now, what's going to happen in the general election?" .

But low turnouts may have accounted for lack of stress. With no statewide or national races on ballots, there were few contests to stir up voter interest.

At a suburban Moose Lodge in northwest Tampa that houses two voting precincts, poll workers sat idle late Tuesday morning, some with their noses in paperback novels. One worker said only about 30 voters showed up all morning.

The state's voter assistance line received 172 calls as of 4 p.m., most from people asking questions about where or how to vote. Only four complaints were logged and all were resolved, said Department of State spokeswoman Jennifer Krell Davis.

About 250,000 people cast ballots during early voting. Some voting Tuesday were disappointed they were among the few.

"I think it's kind of pathetic," said Rebecca Carlson, who voted at Christian Life Center in Fort Lauderdale. "No one is showing up for local government, and the spotlight is all at the national level when most of the decisions that affect our daily lives happen on the local level."

While no election issues resulting from Tropical Storm Fay's flooding were reported, this is the first election in Florida using optical scan election voting machines in all of the state's precincts.

Florida officially became an all-optical-scan state on July 1; however, polling places still have at least one touch-screen unit to accommodate visually-impaired voters.

All touch-screens will be out of Florida's election system by 2012.

With optical scan equipment, voters fill in ovals on a paper ballot and then a scanner verifies their vote before they leave the precinct.

Florida pulled the plug on its touch-screen machines after less than six years in operation. They were once praised as a way to prevent messy elections (as in the notorious 2000 presidential race), but instead the technology proved expensive and problematic, as in Sarasota's disputed Congressional race in 2006, in which Republican Vern Buchanan was certified the winner by 369 votes. Democrat Christine Jennings charged that nearly 18,000 ballots in heavily Democratic precincts registered no vote at all in the representative's race.

The new equipment was not without its hassles.

Mark Ferguson (left) told WTSP that once he got into his precinct and voted, the machine still wouldn't accept his ballot. He said he was told it was because the paper ballot had a perforated edge.

Ferguson said poll workers recommended he fill out another ballot, but he suggested simply taking off the perforated edge.

"They took my advice and it went through, and as I was leaving one of the poll workers said to me as I was walking out, 'We didn't know about that, we didn't know that we had to take off the perforated edge - they didn't show us in training."

However, the people who run the polling place said the voting came off without a hitch and Ferguson is wrong about there being problems.

Precinct Clerk Lucy Lamy told WTSP correspondent Mike Deeson they had nobody waiting, and there were no problems with the ballots, either.

"Believe me, that's not true," she said.

But while there may not have been wait times during voting, there were once it came time to count the ballots.

At least two large counties, Sarasota and Hillsborough, reported problems scanning absentee ballots. Hillsborough officials were trying to sort out the glitch while Sarasota counted 10,000 ballots by hand.

The posting of results in Hillsborough once the polls closed lagged behind those of other counties, and were slowed by what were described as software problems.

Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson told the Tampa Tribune that the problem stemmed not from election workers, but from the new Premier Election Solutions equipment, and assured reporters and anxious candidates that the lack of results did not mean votes were lost.

"This has nothing to do with tabulation." The votes, he told the paper, were "safe and secure."

Robert Pickett, a salesman for Premier, told reporters, "It was a database issue we just had to resolve."

"The elections business is not perfect," Johnson said. "A delay is not a mistake. A delay is a delay."

Last week, Premier - formerly known as Diebold - warned officials in 34 states that a critical programming error stemming from the use of multiple memory cards to tabulate votes recorded on touch-screen systems could cause votes to be lost before they are tallied.

At least 1,000 total votes were dropped in nine Ohio counties over the course of a handful elections dating back to 2006, including this year's presidential primary in March, though the error was in all cases discovered and corrected within several hours.

Premier previously had said complications with antivirus software caused the problem.

But after further testing, Premier admitted last week that the problem was with the machines themselves, and that the problem has existed on both touch-screen machines and optical-scan tabulators for the last ten years.