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Florida's Early Voting Process Seems Rife For Another Challenge If Election Close

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Early voting rolled out yesterday in Florida, and, if the West Delray Beach Library, where I voted this afternoon, is any indicator, the new paper/scan voting system will cause extreme delays, is easily subject to error, and throws the privacy of the secret ballot right out of the window.

I arrive at the library, one of seven polling places with early voting in my section of Palm Beach County, Florida, around 1:30 pm. There were eighty to one-hundred people waiting in line in front of the library to vote early. In 2004, with the computerized machines, a line that long took 45 minutes to process, so I hopped into the line, knowing that it might take a while.

It was a predominantly older crowd. At 46, I was one of the three youngest people on the line, which, given our area's population, and the lack of enthusiasm of younger people for voting, seems to be the norm for opening day of early voting in Florida.

In the first hour waiting, I got to know folks on line with me: The retired treasury agent, the lady who sold oxygen equipment and scooters, the teacher from the area Catholic School, and the retired navy man who was wearing his U.S.S. Antietam hat. A fine cross-section of voters.

By the second hour, we all agreed that, whatever your choice, the level and intensity of the rhetoric and anti-American, Joe-loving nonsense that have polluted the airwaves and the Internet for the last two weeks have been pretty nauseating. There was one guy who went on about Keith Olbermann, and said he preferred Bill O'Reilly because he was more moderate (No, that is not a typo.).

Heading into the third hour, I was wondering why it was taking so long to get through the door to the election room. Then I found out why.

I was handed a "Practice Sheet:"

Florida apparently is not using our computerized voting machines. No. To make a "paper" system, we have a whole new voting procedure.

Immediately it caused a stir in the line. Rather than vote on the machine, or punch a card, voters must connect the line from one side of the arrow to the other to indicate their vote. They must use the pen provided at the voting booth, or, we were told, the vote might not register.

When called, a few at a time, you enter the polling place. You are then ushered to a bank of laptops manned by election officials who take a form that you filled out hours ago and try to locate you on the computer.

Most of the poll workers are elderly, and not particularly adept at using the computers. My agent took almost five minutes to find me and issue me a ballot. One woman who exited the polling place after half an hour was apparently dead, even though she looked quite well. So they had to go and find a way to update the local computers to reflect her good fortune. This kept one of the ten stations occupied for nearly twenty minutes.

Once you are finished being processed, you move to another line in front of a large copier. There you wait as it spits out originals, two pages of 11x17 cardstock with your ballot. Each ballot was taking on the order of a minute to print, manually check, and place into a huge sleeve.

The polling officials were polite, and apologetic, but they could see the frustration that the process was creating. Two people who where in line in front of me where stuck there while someone tried to find out why their ballots never printed. I was lucky enough to have my ballot show up, so I moved on to a voting booth.

At 46, I can draw a line reasonably well, but the lady on the other side of me who was 73 had arthritis and was clucking about how hard it was going to be to make sure it was "right."

Outside, earlier, she had mentioned to me that she probably didn't push her ballot all the way into the voting system in 2000 and probably voted for Pat Buchanan rather than Al Gore. If Pat writes me, I will get her your 'Thank You' note. That goof had haunted her, and she was very concerned about getting this vote right.

Many people were there because they were concerned that their absentee ballot would not matter or be counted. Several people said that they had heard that, unless you could sign your ballot very close to the way that you had signed your registration card, that your vote could be invalidated. Many registered years or decades ago, and said that their signatures have changed with age. True or not, it drove them to the polling place, to stand in line, to participate in the process and make sure that their voices were heard.

There were other practical problems, some of which may have just been at this location. The line to vote was outside of the library. The heat, fortunately, was not bad, but many elderly people stood for hours. A few who found a place to sit on a smattering of concrete benches in front of the library were given tickets to hold their place in the line. A few card chairs were brought out when people complained that they could not stand.

A uniformed guard directed people to a spillover field adjacent to the library, but no one there was directing traffic, so the edges of the field parked up and the center was left empty, with cars circling, giving up, and driving off after people failed to find a place to park.

The ballot itself is huge at 11x17" and intimidating. There are at least a dozen presidential candidates listed on the Florida State ballot. McCain and Obama are joined by Nader and a whole flotilla of names with party intials that are totally unknown to me.

Making a mistake might be easy to do. The wrong pen, or someone who lacks the manual dexterity to make the line right, might have a problem with their vote being counted properly by scanning equipment.

You can request an electronic machine if you are not able to use a pen, or if you speak a language, like Creole or Patois, that is not found on the printed ballot. Still, there were only three such machines at the polling place, which had several people waiting for them.

The same people who can barely drive to the polling place, though, are not likely to admit that they cannot handle the pen properly either. How many lines connected improperly will become dropped votes? How many people who have conditions like macular degeneration will be able to see the "arrows" well enough to connect them properly? The process seems rife for another challenge if the vote is close in Florida, as it often has been.

When finished, I had to slide these huge pieces of paper back into the big sleeve, and then walk them over to a scanner that sits atop a giant bin.

I was told to put the pages in one at a time. To do this requires me to remove the flat-card ballot pages from the big sleeve, and put them in. Doing this, in most cases, exposes the ballot so that it can be easily seen by the polling officials, and by the people next to me as it goes it. So much for the privacy of the ballot. I really wasn't sure what the big sleeve achieved, other than being another awkward accoutrement of this Byzantine ballot.

On departure, the big sleeve was collected, and you were given an "I Voted" sticker.

There were nearly twenty people operating this one polling place, and they were processing fewer than a hundred people to generously one-hundred fifty people in TWO HOURS and fifteen minutes.

Multiply this mess state wide, and there will be a number of people who, after hearing how poorly the system is working for the early voting, may elect to stay home.

One of the big topics of conversation by the departing was why Florida did not just use its much more rapid computerized booths, which were employed during the primary, and just attach a printer to them to print out a paper copy of the ballot to verify the machine, that could be deposited in a much smaller box.

The process, particularly in the printing of the ballots, is painfully slow, manpower-intensive, requires manual dexterity. None of this is a win in a state with an elderly population and a history of error-prone voting.

Voting early would be highly advisable. If they can only process a couple of hundred people an hour at a mega-polling place, I am not sure what will happen when the usual cast of very dedicated elderly volunteers tries to operate this equipment on a massive scale.

One thing is certain: Florida's reputation for voting woes has not been lived down in 2008, and many, many people may be disenfranchised by this bizarre and cumbersome system that seems, by reputation and word-of-mouth, to be designed to discourage turnout.