Missing ballots, balky machines hamper voting in key states

Florida lines
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots in Orlando, Florida today.

Voters in Florida, Ohio and Virginia are among those reporting long lines and problems with ballots and voting machines. Voting-rights groups sound the alarm.

Reporting from Miami and Washington — Heavy voter turnout overwhelmed polling places in the key battleground states of Florida, Ohio and Virginia, prompting tens of thousands of complaints about long waits, missing ballots and malfunctioning voting machines.

Most trouble spots had been identified ahead of the voting by the Election Protection Coalition, a vote-monitoring cooperative uniting dozens of nonpartisan civil-rights and public- policy groups.The coalition reported more than 41,000 calls to its (866) OUR-VOTE hotline by midday, including 1,400 from Florida and more than 1,000 from Ohio.

It was unclear if the problems reported so far were indications of broader breakdowns. But voting-rights groups were already sounding the alarm.

“We certainly don’t want to be Chicken Little here. We’re trying to report what we’re seeing out in the field. But this is what we expected to happen,” Jonah Goldman, director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections, said of the problems that surfaced in previous elections or early voting. “The infrastructure of our election isn’t really equipped to handle this kind of turnout.”

In North Carolina, where extended early voting allowed half of registered voters to cast their ballots ahead of election day, lines were more manageable and problems fewer, Goldman said.

Voters in Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio faced waits of up to four hours, according to the coalition.

Widespread breakdowns of electronic voting machines and jamming of optical scanners for paper ballots were reported throughout Florida.

“Ballots are being set aside to be run through the scanners at end of the day, which doesn’t allow the voter to verify that the ballot was marked as intended,” said Derek Cressman of Common Cause. “We’ve seen dozens of reports of this all across South Florida. It doesn’t appear to be an isolated issue.”

Misprinted ballots in Broward County caused delay at some polling places, and election workers in Tampa, Tallahassee, Palm Beach and Miami were having trouble calling in to the state supervisor of elections to verify eligibility of voters whose names were among more than 10,000 still being contested under Florida’s “no match, no vote” law adopted last year.

Election watchdogs chastised states where the potential for turnout-related problems had been forecast had done too little to avert a shortage of voting machines, ballots and poll workers.

“Sometimes, election officials wait until there’s a meltdown. Florida has made some improvements since 2000, and Ohio has made some improvements since 2004. Sometimes you need to have the finger pointed at you,” said Jon Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law.

In Columbus — where there were widespread problems in 2004 — Zach Manifold, spokesman for the Franklin County Democratic Party, reported few complaints, mostly from people confusing regular paper ballots with provisional ballots.

“It’s an average election morning,” said Manifold.

In addition to machine problems in Philadelphia, election monitors across Pennsylvania reported at midday that students at Penn State University and elsewhere were being forced to vote on provisional ballots.

Voting-rights groups worry that provisional ballots may not get counted because they are not tabulated until days after election day.

There were also reports of police officers being posted outside voting places in Wayne County in the northeast part of the state, which advocates say have intimidated some voters. Election monitors are looking at reports that pre-election robocalls in Allentown may be keeping Latino voters away from the polls today.

In Pittsburgh, poll watchers said voting appears to have settled down after early-morning problems there.

Mike Litterst, a spokesman for the Virginia state Board of Elections, said problems in the state have been mostly isolated to a few precincts, and he did not anticipate the state taking any emergency measures.

Election watchers had hoped that massive early voting nationwide would take some of the pressure off polling today. By some estimates, as many as 30% of the ballots cast in this year’s presidential election were cast before today.

Voting before election day in West Virginia and North Carolina revealed problems with electronic voting machines that were flipping their votes inexplicably. Election officials said the problems resulted from machines that were improperly calibrated.

But several battleground states expected to be crucial to today’s results — including Virginia and Pennsylvania — had limited early voting, making it harder for local election officials to correct problems before today.

Voting-rights groups are expecting even more problems in the Rocky Mountain states and on the West Coast. In Denver, which experienced long lines in the 2006 midterm elections, voters will cast their ballots on paper for the first time in decades.

“We need comprehensive voting reform so that these mistakes do not continue and so that every eligible voter can register and cast a ballot that will be counted,” Goldman said.

carol.williams@latimes.com; noam.levey@latimes.com

By Carol J. Williams and Noam N. Levey
10:07 AM PST, November 4, 2008

Source: Los Angeles Times

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