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Turnout tests Florida election system

USF student Raychel Gantt, 18, tries to keep warm while in line on campus in Tampa on Tuesday. “We’re going to make a big difference, especially in this election,” Gantt said.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

USF student Raychel Gantt, 18, tries to keep warm while in line on campus in Tampa on Tuesday. “We’re going to make a big difference, especially in this election,” Gantt said.

Florida voters piled into polling places in large numbers Tuesday, giving the state's new paper ballot system its first big workout.

Lower-than-expected turnout kept the load manageable at most polls — though Hillsborough County stood out for Election Day miscues. And a late night counting glitch left results trickling in past midnight for local, state and national races.

But the "tsunami" of voters that many expected turned out to be more of a quiet, steady storm.

Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Orange and Duval counties, to name a few, reported turnouts in the 70 percent to 75 percent range — much lower than the estimates of 85 percent offered by many experts.

In the Tampa Bay area and across the state, citizens, election officials and voter advocates reported an assortment of problems at the polls: missing ballot pages, malfunctioning scanners used to count ballots, poll worker errors and, in some places, a lack of preparedness. But officials quickly addressed problems, or voters simply overcame them.

The exception was Hillsborough, where hundreds of voters didn't receive the second page of their ballot and hundreds of University of South Florida students descended on small polling place with room for only a handful of voting booths. Many waited more than four hours.

Hillsborough surpassed every county in Florida for the most complaints registered with the Election Protection Coalition's Our Vote Live Website.

Voter advocacy groups targeted Florida as a potential trouble spot because Tuesday marked the first large-scale test of the state's optical scan paper voting system. Most Florida voters were using their third voting method in as many presidential elections, and some feared a close contest between John McCain and Barack Obama would expose flaws that would bring about a repeat of the 2000 election.

But the state appeared to shake off those ghosts with only a few problems.

Secretary of State Kurt Browning, Florida's top elections official, celebrated what he called a "smooth" election, even as thousands of college students, retirees and others remained in line in five counties at 9 p.m.

Browning also breathed a sigh of relief: As a strong advocate of the old touch screen voting system, he was initially wary of the rapid changeover to optical scan ballots.

But it worked, he said. "Floridians responded with enthusiasm and with patience."

Browning rated Tuesday's election a 9 on a scale of 10. He said two weeks of early voting, when an estimated 2.7-million Floridians cast ballots, made Tuesday a lot easier. Another 1.6-million Floridians cast absentee ballots.

Across the state, none of the problems reported appeared to have a major impact.

In Broward County, paper ballot scanners at one polling place kept rejecting ballots with a printing error, outraging voters before poll workers finally got the machines to work.

Scanners at some Palm Beach County polling places erred by rejecting ballots on which voters simply skipped the state constitutional amendments.

In Orlando, waiting times at the University of Central Florida arena exceeded 3 1/2 hours because there weren't enough staff and scanners to handle the crowds of students wanting to vote. Voters ordered pizza in line.

In Hernando, an unknown number of voters were given the wrong ballots. Elections supervisor Annie D. Williams said the problems were corrected quickly but there was no recourse for voters.

In Pinellas, the day appeared to go smoothly with only isolated reports of malfunctioning optical scan machines.

By 7 p.m., two Obama volunteers were standing outside the Frank Pierce Recreation Center in St. Petersburg. Prepared for long lines, they held handbills with a message from their candidate: "Even if it's late and the line is long, please stay and make sure your vote is counted."

But only a few voters breezed in and out as the polls closed.

"I don't know what it means," said City Council member Karl Nurse, who was there for the Obama campaign. "We must not have had many dysfunctional things happen."

By 8 p.m. Tuesday, Pinellas was reporting results from 88 percent of its precincts, compared with only 2 percent in Hillsborough County, where voting at USF's Marshall Center continued past 11 p.m.

Young voters passed the time listening to music on laptops and iPods and volunteers plied them with free sandwiches, water, lemonade and crackers.

"There are 300 registered voters in this district, but we probably have 1,000 voting," said Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson, who arrived at the center shortly after 7:30 p.m. "It's an exciting thing. … If every precinct turned out like this, the symphony of democracy would be really, really sweet."

He explained that the students normally vote absentee, but turned out to vote in person, requiring them to change their addresses. The process can be time-consuming.

Said USF spokesman Michael Hoad: "It's very clear they completely underestimated based on the number of registered voters."

Hundreds of other Hillsborough voters didn't receive the second page of their ballot due to poll worker error. But Johnson's office couldn't say how many exactly. The page included two state constitutional amendments and the county mayor veto issue.

Former county commissioner Jan Platt called the slipup "totally inexcusable."

Times staff writers Steve Bousquet, Angie Drobnic Holan, Rob Farley, Justin George, Aaron Sharockman, Michael Van Sickler and Donna Winchester contributed to this report

Turnout tests Florida election system 11/04/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 5, 2008 9:04pm]
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