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If Election Day is boring, that's good

In the eight years since Florida invited national scorn for the presidential recount of 2000, the state has rewritten its election laws and twice changed voting systems.

But as Floridians prepare to jam polling places in record numbers over the next 16 days, it's not at all clear that things will go any more smoothly.

Consider:

• About 2.5-million more voters are expected to cast ballots this year than voted in the Bush-Gore race.

• Florida's biggest counties, including Pinellas, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, will debut a paper-ballot machine that most voters will have never seen before.

• The new paper ballots take up to twice as long to complete as the touch-screen ballots they replaced, which could mean longer waits for voters.

And one thing will be exactly the same: Just as it was in 2000, Florida is again a critical battleground state in which the results are expected to be extremely close.

This combination of factors has political observers and election officials themselves nervous, though optimistic, about the voting that begins on Monday. They're expecting crowded precincts, long lines and longer waits.

"I still have the same concerns about changing voting systems in a presidential election year," Pinellas elections supervisor Deborah Clark said. "It's a large undertaking. You don't just roll the old ones out and the new ones in."

Clark was one of 15 county election supervisors who wrote a letter to state officials last year urging them to postpone the statewide move to the paper ballot system. Many counties already were using the paper ballots, in which voters darken in ovals next to the name of their preferred candidate and feed the ballot into a scanning machine, but the state's largest counties were not.

To be sure, election-system news is not all gloomy.

The new paper ballot system leaves behind a clear paper trail of voter intent should there be a recount, early voting and absentee balloting programs have been expanded to take some of the pressure off Election Day, and Florida now has a more consistent ballot design from county to county.

Plus, the new voting system has been used already this year, though on a much smaller scale, so election officials have learned from early mistakes. Clark, for instance, staffed a March 11 St. Pete Beach election with supervisors so her office could focus on potential problems.

What did they learn? That voters were unsure where to go next as they signed in, picked up their ballots, voted and placed their ballots in a scanner on the way out. That scanners sometimes jammed on the rough edge of ballots that was created when poll workers tore off a stub at the top.

The solutions: red signs in every polling place directing voters through each step and putting the tear-away stub at the bottom of each ballot so the clean edge at the top goes through the scanner first.

Obvious, yes. Clark calls it "a real 'duh' moment."

Still, St. Pete Beach is not the same as a statewide election. If there's one thing that Florida election officials agree gives them concern it's this: sheer volume.

Since the disastrous 36-day recount of 2000, Florida's voter registration rolls have swelled by nearly 2-million people. Turnout is expected to be larger too — up 15 percentage points or more from 2000.

If those predictions hold true, this year's McCain-Obama contest will attract 2.5-million more Florida voters than Bush-Gore.

"The presidential election is a maximum stress test on any election system; it's the peak load," said Dan McCrea, president of the Florida Voters Foundation. "One thing that will help is if everyone goes in thinking we're all in this together."

McCrea said it's important to hold elections officials accountable for managing the process, but don't expect perfection.

"It's not a five-star restaurant where you thumb your finger and demand service," he said. "It's part of a participatory democracy."

Well aware of the onslaught awaiting them, election supervisors are getting ready.

"Any time we have a large election like this one, our biggest concern is getting voters to the right polling places on Election Day," said Orange County elections supervisor Bill Cowles.

Duval County election supervisor Jerry Holland expects waits of one to two hours on Nov. 4, even as he beefs up his poll-worker staff by 35 percent.

"I feel good; we'll continue to prepare," he said. "But I'm never so confident that I think something couldn't come up."

Indeed, something could.

The long lines that are expected could be made worse by long ballots, particularly in big counties such as Broward, where voters will have eight pages of votes to cast. In addition, although the state has made strides in getting uniformity in ballots, there are still inconsistencies that could cause problems if a statewide recount were required.

These and other differences among counties can open the door to problems, said McCrea.

In tight races, "everything that you can complain about comes into play," he said. "Florida is not properly prepared for close elections. ... Florida's laws leave too many things to go to court about."

While paper is the focus of the new system, it still relies heavily on machines. In precinct polling places and early voting centers, scanners count ballots one by one as voters exit. Absentee ballots, meanwhile, are counted by high-speed scanners at the supervisor of elections office.

Recounts can get more complicated. Some counties, including Palm Beach, recount ballots on their high-speed scanners, which sometimes can yield a different result than those used in the precincts.

Clark, the Pinellas supervisor, doesn't take that chance. She rolls in multiple precinct scanners for recounts.

"This ain't my first rodeo," she said. "Something in my tiny mind just tells me that you use the same kind of equipment for a recount that you use for Election Day. ... I think it just makes sense."

The machines are giving some people pause.

"In every recent election we have seen voting system failures — machines that won't start, memory cards that can't be read, mistallied votes, lost votes, and more," said Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause Florida. "So it's crucial that Florida take steps to ensure that a machine problem doesn't stop eligible citizens from voting, or prevent their vote from being counted."

Common Cause and two other groups, the Brennan Center for Justice and Verified Voting, issued a "report card" last week that found Election Day procedures lacking in a majority of states.

Florida was not rated among the worst- or best-prepared states, but the report gave it mixed reviews. It praised the state's ballot accounting systems but said Florida's paper trail was inadequate, as were its rules for postelection audits of counting machines.

Supervisors say they are taking steps to ensure machine breakdowns don't ruin Election Day.

In Miami-Dade, 60 county trucks will circulate around the county on Nov. 4, ready to deliver scanners, ballots, voting booths, even generators to polling places.

"We're very comfortable," Supervisor of Elections Lester Sola said.

Sandy Wayland of the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition said more time, money and effort than ever has been spent to recruit and train poll workers to deal with everything from jammed ballot scanners to provisional ballots.

Other counties plan similar measures.

"It's complex. That's why you need people with a pretty decent level of skills to do it," Wayland said. "It's a daunting task."

In 2002, the last time Florida ushered in a new voting system, only 55 percent of voters turned out — one of the lowest showings in the past 50 years. It's a chapter that offers both concern and comfort.

The September primary that year was a mess, with major problems in Miami-Dade and Broward.

Dozens of polling places with new touch screen machines opened two hours late, turning thousands of voters away. Poll workers couldn't get the machines running, and later efforts to count votes went slowly. Data cartridges disappeared and there was talk of dismissing the counties' election supervisors for malfeasance.

Both counties rebounded nicely for the general election but only after a huge effort that resembled the emergency management response to a big hurricane.

The result was a "boring" election, as then-Secretary of State Jim Smith put it. Just the way election officials like it.

"Stay vigilant; there are people out there watching," Kurt Browning, the current secretary of state, told Florida's election supervisors in a recent conference call.

"This is our opportunity to get farther away from 2000. And the only way we're going to do that is by having good elections."

If Election Day is boring, that's good 10/18/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 21, 2008 2:44pm]

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