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Florida votes - and the talk is of another 'fix'

The old man turning up to vote yesterday in the Little Havana district of Miami had a secret weapon that would enable him avoid what every Floridian had been dreading – waiting in line for ever. He lifted his beige polo shirt to reveal a full colostomy bag and demanded to be let inside at once.

The tactic was not necessary since the wait was only about 10 minutes, despite worries about the new touch-screen voting machines. Nor did it work. Suddenly, everyone had a medical ailment. A woman in front of him opened her blouse to reveal a large scar from recent heart surgery.

At this polling station, in a centre for mentally disabled children, the atmosphere was one of a military operation. No fewer than 20 election clerks were watching over voters using 19 new voting screens. Seen as a "hot spot" for possible problems, it was also the first stop in a very long day for Steve Shiver, the Miami county manager. He liked what he saw.

"It appears everything is going smoothly," he said, recording the scene with a video camera because his job was on the line if the voting went badly. "It really paid off that we did our homework."

While the political stakes in the state were sky high – Jeb Bush, the brother of the President, contesting the governorship with his Democratic challenger Bill McBride – it was the success of the balloting that worried Floridians, who became the butt of jokes worldwide after the fiasco of the 2000 presidential race. A first run with the new voting machines on primary day in September also went disastrously.

Thus the preparations for yesterday were extraordinarily intense, especially here in Miami-Dade and in its neighbouring county, Broward. Between them, the two counties, which are heavily Democrat, delayed the result of the Gore-Bush race by five weeks. "It's like getting ready for a war," Florida's Secretary of State, Jim Smith, said before the vote.

Both counties set up emergency centres to respond to any problems. They dragooned thousands of county workers to staff the polling stations in 12-hour shifts and they prepared for a deluge of observers – not just from the United States, but from countries as unlikely as Armenia and Bosnia.

All sorts of problems loomed. Would the workers operate the "iVotronic" machines correctly? Would the computers, which cost Florida $32m (£21m) to install, work? Could they cope with an expected high turn-out? How long would voters take? (In Broward, they had to vote on 45 issues, including amendments to the state constitution).

At midday, the overall pictured seemed encouraging. Janet Reno, the former US attorney general who lost to Mr McBride in the chaotic September primary, emerged smiling from a polling station in suburban Miami. "It was smooth," she reported. "They were prepared for me this time." Broward officials expressed delight on hearing of problems with the new machines in Georgia and South Dakota.

But one radio station took calls from Floridians claiming difficulties with machines that registered votes for the wrong candidate. "I voted for McBride but the machine counted it as Bush," one enraged listener told talk-show host Neil Rogers on WQAM radio. "I tell you now, this election is fixed," Mr Rogers fulminated in response.

The same tale was reported by David Templer, 40, a lawyer who voted early in North Miami Beach. "It was very disturbing," he complained, saying that his vote for Mr McBride kept getting registered for Mr Bush. But Gloria Nunez Turkel, a former Reno election worker sent to Little Havana as an observer for the Democratic Party, wore a relaxed smile. She said she was impressed with the preparations, which included having a demonstration machine for people to experiment on before actually voting.

"It's going beautifully. I'm actually quite thrilled," Ms Turkel declared. Just about the only thing that had really caught her eye was the spat between colostomy man and heart-surgery woman.