Florida: No repeat of previous fiasco as voters brave rain to make choice

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Gerda is getting impatient. She has been standing in hot sunshine for about 20 minutes outside an American Veterans building, designated polling station number 2078, in West Palm Beach ­ and suddenly it is beginning to rain. Not a lady in the flush of youth, she may have to wait another hour.

Gerda is getting impatient. She has been standing in hot sunshine for about 20 minutes outside an American Veterans building, designated polling station number 2078, in West Palm Beach ­ and suddenly it is beginning to rain. Not a lady in the flush of youth, she may have to wait another hour.

"If I have to wait here too long, I am just going to go home," Gerda, who prefers not to give her second name, declares to everyone as she pushes up a large black umbrella. "No, you won't," interrupts a friend, Judy Weintraub, "because I'm your ride back." "Well," says a grumpy Gerda, "then I will just walk."

In the end, the ladies get to vote and all plump for John Kerry. Four years ago, they had to make sense of the so-called "butterfly" paper ballots that contributed to so much of the post-election confusion in Florida. What did they think of the electronic machines this time? "Mediocre," sniffs Ms Weintraub.

Florida was ground zero of the recount fiasco that led to a five-week limbo in 2000 before George Bush was declared the winner. No wonder it is under the gaze of everyone now, including monitors, both partisan and neutral, from around the country and even the world.

Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood said last night: "This really has been a referendum on our process. We knew that the eyes of the world would be on us during this election cycle. We welcome that. We were prepared." But she warned that it could be Thursday before all the absentee ballots would be counted.

The story at Precinct 2078 yesterdaymay end up being the story of the whole state on election day four years later. There are glitches, snafus and irritations for sure, but the democratic process seems to be working, despite the grouching of some of the monitors outside. "Bullshit, just bullshit!" This is Rene Richthofen, a lawyer by profession who has been dispatched here by the Democratic Party as a polling observer. In fact, he is one of a contingent of eight Democrat workers outside the polling station. There is one of John Kerry's army of lawyers here, as well as several volunteers for MoveOn.org, the political action group partly funded by the financier George Soros. Oddly, there is not a Republican monitor or lawyer in sight.

"This country is supposed to be the greatest democracy in the world, and just look at the line of people waiting more than hour to get in. It's just criminal," complains Mr Richthofen, who is fuming that the precinct only has six voting machines and one broke down one hour after voting started. He is equally exercised by the complexity of the ballot itself. Aside from selecting a new president and new members of Congress as well as local government officials, there are
20 ballot initiatives on which electors must vote. "Can you even understand this? It's not even in English," Mr Richthofen says, pointing to one initiative about the rights of patients to the records of hospitals and doctors.

Rosalind Kaufman, who is taking time from her law practice in New York to work for Mr Kerry, is also uneasy, especially by the time it is taking to get people through. "If the wait gets too long for people, I think they are going to be discouraged and go home." Which is exactly what one businessman decides. He has a meeting to make and his vote will have to wait until 2008.

Other problems have surfaced. A few people have arrived to find their names missing from the rolls. Under a new law, they should be given a provisional right to vote, but workers inside say they need permission from election headquarters first. But the phones seem to be down there, or at least no one is picking up. Another man is sent to vote at a different address ­ but the address does not exist.

Larry Bernstein lives in California but is here this morning representing MoveOn.org. He has DVDs and leaflets to hand out about John Kerry, the "Kerry Kit". He has a list of people who are irregular voters in the precinct and he is waiting to see if they show up to vote. If they don't soon, he will head out into the streets and try to find them. Mr Bernstein, meanwhile, is encouraged. The queue here may be long, but that signals a high turnout ­ as it seems to be in precincts all across Florida and in many other swing states. "They tell me that four years ago, this place was completely empty. Now look at it. The idea that we are getting such a large turnout makes me feel good".

That is the conclusion of Linda Hennessee, 60, who is way back in the queue but is prepared to wait for as long as it takes. And she particularly likes the chatter going on in the line, because everyone there seems to be a Kerry supporter. "If this many people in this precinct are voting for John Kerry then he is going to win," she declares with confidence.

Sandra Richardson, 53, emerges from the polling station two hours after arriving. Her verdict on the new touch-screen machines? "They're great, so simple to use." She does not vote in most elections but this time she felt it was too important to stay away. She is not saying for whom she voted today.

South of here, reports of problems are few. A suburb of Miami saw frustration when one precinct opened 30 minutes late because of paperwork problems. In Fort Lauderdale, a local US Congressman, Clay Shaw, disclosed that he had been mistakenly sent an absentee ballot, but officials let him vote anyway. "The lines are moving quickly," he reported.

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