Unhappy about becoming what the New York Times terms a “laughing stock” after the 2000 election, Florida Governor Jeb Bush promised a model election the next time around. Since then, Florida has spent nearly $32 million on state-of-the-art touch-screen voting machines and poll-worker training. A local Web site run by Miami newspapers displayed complete step-by-step instructions on how to use the machines. If you have ever used a bank ATM, voting in Florida should be ridiculously easy.
Yet the outcome of the September 11 Democratic primary for governor had the national media jeering at Florida again. The Times says that chaos reigned in the state’s most populous counties. Al Gore accused Governor Bush of screwing it up again. National Public Radio commentator Nina Totenberg agreed that the Democrats were right to “sock him with it.”
As in 2000, many of the worst problems occurred in Florida precincts that are heavily African-American. NPR’s morning program, All Things Considered, said that while frustrations were high everywhere, the “problems seemed worse” in those neighborhoods. Donna Brazile, who ran Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, said on CNN that it’s Bush’s fault that the 2002 primary was “disenfranchising black people.” One community activist proclaimed this to be a “new Selma.” NPR and others reported lots of finger pointing, but NPR only ran one on-air interview with an African-American elections supervisor who said her county had “unequal and unmet needs” that had been ignored by the state.
But a closer look indicates that September 10 vote-counting difficulties didn’t stem from racism, as some Democrats suggested, or voters too dumb to use the new machines, as Governor Bush quipped. Florida conducts elections in 67 counties; sixteen had purchased and installed new touch-screen machines. Local election supervisors selected three vendors, approved by the state, to provide the machines. Although the Times quoted an election observer criticizing the use of “unsuccessful, first generation equipment,” the vendors have decades of combined experience. One company advertises that its machines are used in 15 states, while another claims its machines counted over 100 million ballots in the 2000 U.S. election alone. Of the 16 counties using the new touch-screen machines, problems occurred in only two counties: Miami-Dade and Broward.
These two plus ten other counties used machines made by ES&S, based in Omaha. Todd Urosevich, an ES&S spokesman, told AIM that problems with new machines are “not unprecedented,” but stem mostly from insufficient training of poll workers. Experts cited by the New York Times agreed that “training matters.”
Some counties provided twelve hours or more of training and one, Sarasota, required poll workers to pass a test before they could work election day. In one county, 14,000 voters and hundreds of poll workers conducted a dry run on the new voting machines in early August. Palm Beach County, which achieved national notoriety in 2000, also conducted dry runs at local music festivals and used the machines during a March municipal election.
But neither Miami-Dade nor Broward put much effort into training poll workers on the new machines. The local media reported that some poll workers got four hours training, some got 10 minutes, and still others said that election morning was the first time they had laid hands on the new machines. Not surprisingly, they couldn’t cope with last-minute changes in instructions for starting the new machines, although this may have been because some poll workers couldn’t read English or couldn’t read at all, reports the Times. At the end of the voting day, precinct workers disappeared with computer cartridges containing the day’s tallies. Some machines were later found stored in a warehouse, before the votes inside had been counted.
Miriam Oliphant, Broward’s election supervisor, was particularly defensive about her county’s performance. She told NPR that her county was underfunded, but the Miami Herald reported that she has a $5.3 million budget, received over $600,000 in additional funding from the state for voter education, poll-worker recruitment and training, and nearly $500,000 more from the county. This in addition to the $17.2 million Broward spent on new machines. Her local critics, who she claims are out to get her, alleged that she fired all the experienced administrators when she first came into office in 2000.
So who’s at fault? In the “buck stops here” sense, Governor Bush. But state officials charge that locals like Ms. Oliphant rejected their offers of assistance. And both of the problem counties are run by Democrats. Whatever the case, Florida has just a few short weeks to avoid another election day debacle on November 2.