Florida voting officials hoping to avoid repeat of 2000 electio

Sunday, July 28, 2002

SUNRISE, Fla. -- To Miriam Oliphant, the keys to life and elections are the same: preparation and organization.

These days the Broward County election supervisor is all about details -- 60 classes a week for county poll workers, an inventory of iVotronic voting machines stacked in a warehouse, even blue aprons for precinct clerks that will hold the all-important card key needed to operate the machines.

"I am going to do everything I possibly can to correct a system that has been broken," Oliphant said. "We know change is long overdue in Broward County."

Across the nation, election officials are entering crunch time in their first major test since the confusion of Election Day 2000. They're pumping up voter education, improving training for poll workers and placing a premium on details that might have been overlooked in the past.

Twenty-four states hold primaries in August and September. Among them, Florida and 10 others conduct their primaries Sept. 10.

Testing reforms

Florida, infamous for hanging chads on punch card ballots and legal wrangling, was the focal point of the protracted 2000 presidential battle that ended with George W. Bush beating Al Gore by just 537 votes in the state.

In 2001, Florida lawmakers approved a series of reforms, including outlawing punch card ballots and authorizing $32 million for new equipment and voter education.

Among Florida counties, Broward's efforts at improvements are drawing attention because it has nearly 1 million registered voters, the most in the state, and features a diverse population of elderly, suburban dwellers and Spanish- and Creole-speaking voters.

Since taking over 18 months ago, Oliphant has initiated a flurry of innovations.

To introduce voters to the new ATM-style, touch-screen voting machines, Oliphant held demonstrations at supermarkets and community centers. She is borrowing 144 phone lines from Nova Southeastern University to handle calls from confused workers and voters on Election Day.

And to recruit 6,000 poll workers, an increase of about 2,000 because of redistricting and population growth, Oliphant has tapped corporations and county employees with background in customer service and technology. Public employees who volunteer as poll workers will receive a paid day off plus $100 for working the 14-hour day.

"We truly cannot think of a more responsible, patriotic thing to do than to be involved in the election process on the eve of 9-11," said Bob Cantrell, who runs the county's poll worker operation.

At a four-hour poll worker training class in Sunrise, Leroy Mattear and nine others got hands-on training on the new machines and voting procedures

Two years ago, Mattear said, his training session held about 500 poll workers, many whom chatted casually or left the hall at their leisure.

"Now it's like school," Mattear said.

Elsewhere in Florida, Hillsborough County elections chief Pam Iorio has held nearly 400 road shows to display the new technology but says many supervisors are still worried.

"There's a concern among supervisors that any little bump along the way will be exaggerated because it's Florida," Iorio said.

The rest of the nation is preparing for the bumps as well.

Georgia lawmakers approved a uniform voting system that will debut in November, and voter education groups are barnstorming the state to introduce touch-screen technology.

"It has made it very easy when you can take the same message to 159 counties across this state and tell the people that all of the machines are going to be the same," said state Rep. Tyrone Brooks of Atlanta.

Five Maryland counties will use the new touch-screen machines and lawmakers have approved plans to phase in the technology to the rest of the state by 2006. Officials have taken the machines to county fairs, sent out voter registration packs and beefed up the state's election web site.

A report in July by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that at least 15 states will buy new voting equipment by 2004, appropriating more than $236 million. Others, strapped for cash, are waiting to see if Congress authorizes federal dollars.

"The truth is, no state wants to be Florida in 2002 or 2004, and they will do what they need to do to prevent that from happening," said Jennie Drage Bowser, an analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures.


On the Net:

Broward Supervisor of Elections: http://www.browardsoe.org/

Electionline.org: http://www.electionline.org/

National Conference of State Legislatures: http://www.ncsl.org/

Maryland Board of Elections: http://www.elections.state.md.us/

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