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Associated Press

Finger-pointing in Florida, talk of recount and worries about November elections
By Catherine Wilson
September 12, 2002

Despite a $32 million renovation, Florida's new election system crashed in an embarrassment that, like the 2000 election, left voters wondering whether their votes counted, candidates pondering recounts and everyone asking who's to blame.

"You guys have NO idea what a mess this has been," state election monitor Mike Lindsey wrote his Tallahassee bosses in a pre-dawn e-mail from Broward County on Wednesday. "The mess was the result of no planning, poor leadership, lack of 'process ownership' and passing the buck."

The debacle, echoing the 2000 presidential stalemate, drew even more scrutiny because, once again, Florida had a high-profile race that was too close to call.

With 1 percent of precincts still to report by late Wednesday, former Attorney General Janet Reno ( news - web sites) trailed Tampa lawyer Bill McBride for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination by about 11,000 votes out of more than 1.3 million cast.

The voting problems ranged from technical to human error. Workers had problems starting up new touchscreen voting machines; ballot cards tore and couldn't be read on optical scanning machines; technical problems delayed processing the electronic cartridges used in the new touchscreen voting machines.

In addition, some poll workers failed to show up; several polling places opened late; some voters were wrongly turned away for not showing a picture identification.

In response to complaints Tuesday, Gov. Jeb Bush extended polling by two hours but that led to yet more abuses: In Hollywood, workers at one precinct who had not been told of the extension held the door shut and cursed at voters.

The Miami Herald projected McBride as the race's eventual winner in an article on its Web site Wednesday night. The newspaper examined the number of registered Democrats in the remaining precincts to be counted in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, which Reno had carried by more than a 2-1 margin.

Estimating turnout at 50 percent higher than the turnout in either county and assuming that Reno won all the votes, McBride would still win the election by more than 2,000 votes, the newspaper reported.

"That analysis is similar to ours, although we would have a higher margin," said McBride spokesman Alan Stonecipher.

Reno said, "What I will do is go back and look at the figures and then comment."

Reno could demand a recount or sue to overturn the results. Secretary of State Jim Smith said the race may be tight enough to automatically trigger a statewide recount less than half a percent.

"She's extremely upset about the disenfranchisement," said Reno spokeswoman Nicole Harburger. "People were not allowed their right to vote. ... That's unacceptable to her."

Miami-Dade County was still tallying votes Wednesday night. Counties had until noon Thursday to report unofficial results.

By Wednesday night, with 99 percent of precincts reporting, McBride had 599,728 votes, or 45 percent, compared with Reno's 588,555 votes, or 44 percent. State Sen. Daryl Jones ( news, bio, voting record) had 155,738 votes, or 12 percent.

In all, 14 of the state's 67 counties reported voting problems, including six of the seven that were sued after the 2000 presidential stalemate.

On Wednesday, the blame game was fast and furious.

Bush and voters pointed fingers at election chiefs in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, which bought touchscreen machines to replace punchcard equipment. All counties were required to get rid of punchcard ballots.

"Let's be clear about this: 65 counties got it right. Wasn't perfect, but they got it right," Bush said. "I guarantee you that in November, the election will run much more smoothly than the supervisors of elections allowed to occur."

Others, however, worried that Florida's troubles were a warning of more to come. Several states scrapped punch-card ballots, bought new equipment and changed their laws since the presidential race.

"It's not just Florida. It's a national problem," said Rob Richie, executive director of the Maryland-based Center for Voting and Democracy. "We will have lots of problems in the next two months."

Tuesday's election contests in 12 states and the District of Columbia brought other voting problems, though none on Florida's scale.

In suburban Maryland, where a new computerized voting system was in place, poll workers at each poll site had to tabulate results on paper, then drive the results and computer memory cards to county election headquarters.

Ballot tabulation machines also failed in North Carolina's Robeson County, forcing officials to slowly count by hand.

But once again, the nation looked at Florida and shrugged.

"I don't know if you can count this in any sense of the word as a fair election," said Dario Moreno, head of a political think tank in Miami.

Many of the problems occurred in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, which bought touchscreen machines from the same company, Elections Systems & Software, and did not run mock elections to test the machines.

Palm Beach and Hillsborough counties, which bought different touchscreen machines, were relatively trouble free. They ran mock elections in advance.

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