Early voting for the presidential election began in Florida on Monday as activists urged people to opt for early ballots to avoid a repeat of the 2000 election fiasco, but computer problems and long lines soon emerged.
With memories still fresh of 2000, when the race in the key battleground state was so close it triggered weeks of recounts and lawsuits, black and elderly voters in particular lined up to cast ballots two weeks before the Nov. 2 election.
“It was embarrassing last time. Florida looked like a third world country,” said Marie Bond, adding she was voting early "because I want my vote to count.”
“I don’t want the same like the last election,” echoed Haitian American Jean-Jacques Ardoun as he waited in a line of several hundred that snaked from inside the Miami-Dade government center outside. “Last time they took the votes and threw them in the garbage.”
Florida decided the 2000 election for President Bush after the U.S. Supreme Court halted the recounts, and both Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, have campaigned vigorously in the state.
As the voting began Kerry was in West Palm Beach — at the center of the 2000 debacle because many voters were confused by the county’s ballot design. Bush, who won Florida by 537 votes in 2000, was due in Boca Raton later Monday.
New technology, such as ATM-style touch-screen voting machines, has replaced the punch card ballots that caused so much chaos in the last election.
Nevertheless, a plethora of independent poll watching groups, the Democrats and Bush’s Republicans are urging voters to take advantage of early voting to avoid problems.
More than two dozen states offer “no excuse” early voting by either mail or in person, meaning voters do not have to give a reason. Some states, such as Nevada, Iowa and West Virginia, have already begun. Texas, Arkansas and Colorado also started Monday.
In Florida, the process was far from seamless.
In Broward County, north of Miami, supervisor of elections Brenda Snipes said a computer connection went down, preventing nine ballot stations from accessing a database to find out which one of the county’s 152 different ballot styles each voter should have.
“It’s a hiccup, it’s a bit more than a hiccup,” Snipes told the Sun-Sentinel newspaper.
In Orlando, home to the Disney World theme parks, people were kept waiting for more than two hours by a combination of long lines and computer malfunctions that prevented poll workers from verifying the names and addresses of voters.
In Miami-Dade, poll workers appeared overwhelmed by the hundreds brought to the government center by a rally of trade unions, voter activists and Democrats, and the line to cast an early ballot moved achingly slowly.
“This is unusual,” said election official Javier Gonzalez, pointing to the long line.
Patience quickly began to run thin.
“They’ve got four people to register hundreds,” said John Simon, a Republican turned Democrat who wanted to pick up an absentee ballot but decided after waiting for two hours that he might as well cast an early vote.
Voting rights activists and Democrats have been highly critical of the state’s elections division, run by Glenda Hood, a Republican appointed by the president’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. A string of lawsuits on issues such as the lack of a paper trail for touch-screen systems are before the courts.
But Republicans also urged people to vote early to avoid long lines amid an anticipated heavy turnout.
“You’ll feel better on November 2nd knowing your vote was already cast,” Bush’s campaign said in an e-mail to supporters.