Another election meltdown

MIAMI -- Despite a $32 million renovation, Florida's new election system crashed in an embarrassment that, like the 2000 election, left voters wondering whether their votes counted, candidates pondering recounts and everyone asking who's to blame.

"You guys have NO idea what a mess this has been," state election monitor Mike Lindsey wrote his Tallahassee bosses in a pre-dawn e-mail from Broward County on Wednesday. "The mess was the result of no planning, poor leadership, lack of 'process ownership' and passing the buck."

The debacle, echoing the 2000 presidential stalemate, drew even more scrutiny because, once again, Florida had a high-profile race that was too close to call.

With 1 percent of precincts still to report by late Wednesday, former Attorney General Janet Reno trailed Tampa lawyer Bill McBride for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination by 11,000 votes out of more than 1.3 million cast.

The voting problems ranged from technical to human error. Workers had problems starting up new touchscreen voting machines; ballot cards tore and couldn't be read on optical scanning machines; technical problems delayed processing the electronic cartridges used in the new touchscreen voting machines. In Miami-Dade, nearly half of the ballots that were still uncounted on Wednesday were cast by black voters.

In addition, some poll workers failed to show up; several polling places opened late; some voters were wrongly turned away for not showing a picture identification.

In response to complaints Tuesday, Gov. Jeb Bush extended polling by two hours -- but that led to yet more abuses: in Hollywood, workers at one precinct who had not been told of the extension held the door shut and cursed at voters.

Reporting problems

In all, 14 of the state's 67 counties reported voting problems, including six of the seven that were sued after the 2000 presidential stalemate.

On Wednesday, the blame game was fast and furious.

Bush and voters pointed fingers at election chiefs in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, which bought touchscreen machines to replace punchcard equipment. All counties were required to get rid of punchcard ballots.

"Let's be clear about this: 65 counties got it right. Wasn't perfect, but they got it right," Bush said. "I guarantee you that in November, the election will run much more smoothly than the supervisors of elections allowed to occur."

Others, however, worried that Florida's troubles were a warning of more to come. Several states scrapped punch-card ballots, bought new equipment and changed their laws since the presidential race.

By Wednesday evening, with 99 percent of precincts reporting, McBride had 599,465 votes, or 45 percent, compared with Reno's 588,177 votes, or 44 percent. State Sen. Daryl Jones had 155,699 votes, or 12 percent.

Many of the problems occurred in Miami-Dade and Broward, which bought touchscreen machines from the same company, Elections Systems & Software, and did not run mock elections to test the machines.

Palm Beach and Hillsborough counties, which bought different touchscreen machines, were relatively trouble free. They ran mock elections in advance.