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Voter turnout worst in 10 years

Voter apathy in Florida rivaled historic depths Tuesday. The 2008 primary election drew the lowest statewide voter turnout for a primary in at least a decade. Incomplete returns late Tuesday showed roughly 17 percent of voters cast a ballot.

A computer glitch stalled the posting of results from Hillsborough County, and Pasco saw 18 of its 147 new optical scan voting machines malfunction when they tried to transmit their tallies via modem.

But those were rare technical stumbles as the entire state for the first time voted using optical scan equipment, a change pushed by Gov. Charlie Crist and others seeking a paper trail.

From a purely mechanical standpoint, "we had a good election day in Florida," said Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning, the former Pasco County elections supervisor. "Voting systems performed well."

But not many people showed up to use the machines, with the turnout at least equalling the previous record low mark for a primary: 17 percent, set in 1998. State officials blamed rainy weather in some parts of the state and the lack of any statewide races on the ballot.

In Pinellas County, where the weather was fine, turnout was just 12 percent, meaning just 75,000 out of 620,000 eligible voters showed up at the polls. That set a new record for primaries. The previous record for the lowest primary vote in Pinellas was 13 percent.

Hillsborough's turnout was even more abysmal — 6.9 percent, meaning about seven voters out of 100 went to the polls. In Pasco, just over 12 percent of the county's 260,593 registered voters — or about 33,000 — cast ballots in Tuesday's primary. Hernando had the highest turnout in the Tampa Bay area, just less than 15 percent.

The Florida Legislature mandated that as of July 2008, all 67 counties switch to optical scan machines for voting, guaranteeing a paper trail should there be any disputes. Browning said voter education efforts had paid off, and the successful ballot counting would go a long way toward rebuilding confidence in the state's often-mocked election system.

The state logged 277 calls to its voter assistance hotline, but only six were classified as complaints. About 100 scanners had to be replaced at a statewide total of 7,000 precincts.

In Pinellas, 12 scanners had to be replaced, according to county elections spokeswoman Nancy Whitlock. Some experienced paper jams, she said, and on some the screens froze. But they were traded out with functioning ones in a matter of minutes, she said.

Out of the 147 machines in Pasco precincts, five had minor problems, but then came the glitch with the modems. When 18 machines could not transmit their results via modem over a dedicated telephone line, poll workers had to pull out the thumb drive and take it to the elections office — although in one case it took three trips, because of confusion over who had the thumb drive.

The optical scan machines are the third voting system in eight years for Florida voters. After the 2000 presidential recount debacle, the majority of Florida's 67 counties chose optical scan technology, including Hernando. But 15 counties — including Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough — that account for the majority of Florida voters had adopted for touch screen technology, so this year those 15 converted to optical scan equipment for the first time.

Some voters seemed relieved to have an actual ballot in their hands instead of one stored in a computer.

"It did seem to restore some voter confidence," said Pasco Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley, "and I know that at the end of the day, if voters have confidence in the voting system, that's what counts the most."

By far the largest problem cropped up in Hillsborough, which Browning had criticized when Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson took longer than any other supervisor to buy optical scan technology. Through bidding, Hillsborough picked a company called Premier Voting Solutions. Its voting systems are used in 34 states, and about 30 of Florida's 67 counties.

However, after major computer problems cropped up during Ohio's March elections, the manufacturer acknowledged last week that its software contains a critical programming error. Because of the error, votes can be dropped while being electronically transferred from memory cards. As a result, the company sent out a nationwide customer alert with recommended actions to deal with the problem.

An hour after the polls closed in Hillsborough, Johnson told reporters that his vote counting system had developed a computer problem that was preventing it from posting the tallies electronically — and he blamed Premier Voting Solutions.

"I haven't been able to get a straight answer from Premier, but I will by the end of the night," he said. "I expect them to fix this issue. We've paid a lot of money. My staff has done a great job.''

Johnson said other counties were having similar problems, but Browning's staff said no other counties statewide had reported a similar glitch. Still, Johnson insisted the problem didn't lie with his office.

"The elections business is not perfect," he said.

A second problem may involve the ballots in some Hillsborough precincts. In more than 100 precincts, the ballots had two sides, not just one — leading some candidates to fret that the voters did not know to turn it over.

Hillsborough school board candidate Stephen Gorham said he wished he had known in advance that his name was going to be on the back of some ballots.

"I would have brought it up at that time with the sheer knowledge that people won't turn over the ballot," he said.

Times staff writers Jamal Thalji, Barbara Behrendt and Mariana Minaya contributed to this story.

Voter turnout worst in 10 years 08/27/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2008 3:13pm]
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