Florida state law specifies that the only persons allowed inside the polling stations while voting is taking place are:
The Supervisor of Elections or the Deputy Supervisor of Elections (county officials who are the equivalent of regional or district election commission chairmen)
Clerk and Assistant Clerks (equivalent of precinct election commission chairman and deputies)
Inspectors (precinct election commission workers who verify identity and authorize voters to receive ballots)
Poll Deputies (civilian officials who maintain order around the polling station)
Poll watchers (equivalent of election observers)
Poll watchers must be certified by the Supervisor of Elections and must be designated by a candidate, political party, or “political committee.” No “independent” local non-governmental organizations such as the International Society for Fair Elections & Democracy, for example, which BHHRG has often encountered in countries such as Georgia, are allowed to sit throughout the day in every polling station. However, the County can “deputize” observers, such as Washington-based Center for Democracy or Vienna-based OSCE, to enter polling stations and talk to poll workers.
In addition to the above election officials, a new class of election employee has arisen as new voting technology has developed, and these are also authorized to enter and remain in the polling stations. In Miami-Dade County, these include:
Demonstrator Inspector (familiarizes voters with the new iVotronic touch-screen machines)
Activator Inspector (collects voter authorization slips and activates the “ballot” by inserting the Ballot Activator device into the iVotronic terminal)
Technical Support Specialist (activates iVotronic terminals, troubleshoots equipment when necessary, and delivers the Results Bags to the designated Collection Centers as soon as the polling station closes on election night)
Verification Specialist (looks up voter’s status in the Voter Registration Rolls in laptop computer, and stays in contact with the Elections Department Precinct by phone when unable to determine voter eligibility using the laptop computer)
Quality Assurance Managers (assists in setting up of polling stations by supervising assembly of the iVotronic “voting booths,” oversees Verification Specialists and Technical Support Specialists, and ensures that voting procedure complies with all legal requirements)
The appearance of the new technology has created a bifurcated hierarchy of officialdom within each polling station. In the “Polling Place Table of Organization” featured in the “media kit” provided by the county, the Clerk (election commission chairman) appears to be on an equal level of authority with the Quality Assurance Manager, both being immediately subordinate to the Supervisor of Elections.
Unlike in many European countries, there is no ban on political campaigning in the US immediately prior to election day. Campaign rallies continue long into the night before polling day, and also into polling day itself, something Western countries and the OSCE would certainly never countenance in, for example, states of the ex-USSR. However it must be noted that in Miami during election 2002 there was a distinct dearth of campaign ads and posters visible around the city. Televised campaign commercials were almost constant, but on the streets and sidewalks signs that a major election was taking place was were few and far between.
The period of early voting in Miami-Dade County was relatively long – two weeks. A major initiative had been implemented to encourage voters to go to the polls early, with posters in many public places that read: “Vote Early! Vote Today!” The early voting was supposedly a way of guarding against the possibility of huge crowds discouraging voter turnout, and to prevent a repeat of problems encountered in election 2000, when thousands of voters were allegedly turned away from the polls. A slogan put out by the County read: “NO ONE WILL BE TURNED AWAY.” Under the rules of this election, voters were entitled to cast “provisional ballots” if they merely asserted their right to vote at a particular polling station, regardless of whether polling station officials were able to establish such an entitlement on the spot. The idea behind the “provisional” (paper) ballots was to allow everyone to vote who wanted to, and then count these votes later once the voter’s eligibility had been firmly established. [BHHRG has seen this “provisional” system used - and abused - in American-organised elections in Kosovo, for instance, where international officials arbitrarily permit or invalidate “provisional” votes in ways which necessarily affect candidates’ vote-totals.]
For early voting, any voter could vote in any of the functioning polling stations, regardless of where they were registered. On Sunday, November 3rd, BHHRG’s representative visited Miami-Dade County Hall to observe voting. A woman outside in a bright yellow t-shirt that read “NOW!” and “CBC Early Voting Project” was handing out “The People’s Slate”– a leaflet listing Democratic candidates running in the election, and designed to assist voters in quickly completing ballots once they reached the “voting booth.” The woman said the initiative was primarily concerned with making class size smaller in state primary and secondary schools, although she did not know what “CBC” (Congressional Black Caucus) on her t-shirt stood for. She told BHHRG that she liked the new touch-screen voting system, “everybody loves it,” and it was “much easier.” However, when asked whether she fully trusted the accuracy and reliability of such a system compared to a paper ballot, the woman said she was unsure. When asked her opinion of the Democratic primary in Florida, she said she had preferred former US Attorney General Janet Reno as a candidate to the ultimate winner, Bill McBride, and that “ninety-five percent of all women” favoured Ms. Reno as well.
BHHRG entered the County Hall building and watched the voting taking place. The polling station was crowded and noisy by the standards of American polling places, with long, chattering lines of voters snaking through airport-style, roped-off lanes before being directed to one of the people sitting at the poll workers’ table in front of a laptop. It was impossible to see what the polling station officials were looking at or typing on the little portable computers.
Around the entrance of the polling station were several people wearing bright orange t-shirts - these were “goodwill ambassadors,” county employees assisting with bussing large numbers of people in from different areas of the city to vote. The supervisor of the group, Rev. Dr. Willie E. Sims, Jr., Director of Special Projects/Crisis Team Coordinator for the Office of the County Manager Community Relations Board, told BHHRG that the Early Bird Voting Project was being spearheaded by Kendrick Meeks, a Democratic candidate for the US House of Representatives, and by Bishop Victor T. Curry of the New Birth Baptist Church. About forty churches had brought their congregations to the polling stations early, and the polling station in the County Hall had already “served over 3,000 voters” that day. He said there were about 50 goodwill ambassadors working on the Sunday, but on election day there would be roughly 2,000. The goodwill ambassadors would be responsible for crowd control at rallies and demonstrations across Miami-Dade County, and would be present at polling stations on election day until the last voter in line at 7 p.m. (when the polls closed) had voted, even if this took until midnight. The programme, he said, was an attempt to rectify past problems, and he mentioned in particular the primary on September 10th, when “a lot of people complained that they were registered Democrats, but were given a Republican ballot when they showed up to vote.” Rev. Sims also said many of the machines had not worked properly during the primaries.
On Monday, November 4th, BHHRG’s representative visited three polling stations open for early voting. At each one, lines were long. At the West Miami City Hall (901 S.W. 67th Ave.), BHHRG found a crowd of voters bunched up on the external staircase leading up to the second floor. The line barely moved during the twenty minutes or so that the polling station was observed. The district was heavily Hispanic, and BHHRG was able to find only one person willing to answer questions because everyone else claimed they spoke no English. This gentleman said he thought the new voting machines were a “good idea” but that it would take time to overcome the sharp “learning curve” among the populace. He believed the machines would “definitely” be “much more accurate.”
At the North Dade Regional Library (2455 N.W. 183rd St.), in a heavily African-American district, BHHRG found a line of about a hundred people extending out the door onto the sidewalk, and was told that many more people were waiting inside to vote. A campaign worker said the line had been getting longer throughout the day. At the North Miami Public Library (835 N.E. 132nd St.) in the Little Haiti district, the voter line was entirely within the building, although it appeared to number perhaps thirty. A couple of middle-aged Haitian immigrants told BHHRG they were not happy with the new iVotronic voting machines, which they felt could not be trusted. The man compared it to machines at petrol stations where you “pay at the pump” with a credit card, saying he did not always trust the machines to give him the right amount or quality of fuel, and claiming it would be much better to keep a paper ballot. Likewise, Service Employees International Union Florida 1199 President Monica Russo, also at the scene, told BHHRG that “the jury is still out” on the new touch-screen voting system because the “potential for fraud is still unknown.” Computer literacy in the area was “not high,” she said, and assistance with voting was critical. However, Philip Brutus – a Florida state legislator running for reelection from the Little Haiti district (who won overwhelmingly) – said he believed that the 2000 election debacle had been a “catalyst for a lot of things that will make it a seamless process.” He believed that the large early voting turnout in reaction to the scare of 2000 and the 2002 primary would make the black and Haitian vote felt.
The large crowds at polling stations during early voting made for a chaotic atmosphere, and although it was impossible for BHHRG to determine whether this chaos adversely affected the integrity of the process, it was certainly believable that it might have. Supposedly, any registered Florida voter could vote in one of the 14 early voting polling stations, and this vote would be recorded in the iVotronic terminals in such a way as to prevent such voters from voting again later somewhere else. But amid the confusion created by the masses of early voters, it almost seemed as if Miami-Dade County could have benefited from a system familiar in ex-Soviet republics, whereby voters have their passports stamped after casting ballots. Instead, ultimate faith had to be put in the touch-screen machines and computer databases to keep track of the votes of thousands of voters around the county, many undoubtedly with similar names and other personal data.
BHHRG’s representative visited 10 polling stations around Miami on election day proper. All were very sparsely attended, with only a tiny stream of voters evident at all times of the day. At Coral Way Elementary School (Precinct 570) in the predominantly Cuban-American district of Little Havana in southwest Miami, BHHRG was told that 200-300 voters had come between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m., before working hours, but for half an hour from 9:55 to 10:25 a.m. the total number of voters going in and out was five. Of these, sadly very few were willing to answer questions because (they said) they spoke no English. BHHRG was warned by the poll deputy at the door to stay back, and no poll workers emerged to answer questions. One woman understood enough of BHHRG’s question about the new voting machines to answer: “No good, no good.”
Even at polling stations where two precincts had been amalgamated into one since the last election, turnout was extremely low. At the El Cordero Presbyterian Church (Precincts 571 & 594), turnout was even lower than at the single precinct previously visited. A campaign worker for a school board candidate said about 2,200 voters were on the list here, and that roughly 250 had already voted at 10:30 a.m. He believed the new voting machines were “intimidating to older folks.” At the Douglas Park Community House (Precincts 540 & 577), turnout from 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. totaled only about 9 or 10. BHHRG was allowed to approach the entrance of this polling station and talk to the poll deputy, who said that there were roughly 1,000 voters registered at this site, even though she said the exact figures were unavailable. However, she did add that Precinct 540 only had “about ten people in it,” the rest all belonging to Precinct 577. This, she said, was due to redistricting. Most of the voters on the roll here, in Republican Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s congressional district, were elderly. Another poll worker told BHHRG that no one there would know how many had voted there until the end of the day, and no one was keeping count. One elderly gentleman was ambivalent about the new voting system, while an older couple described it as “great” and a group of four elderly women said they thought the machines were an improvement on paper ballots.
Rules about who was entitled to enter the polling station were unevenly enforced. For example, at the Shenandoah Elementary School in southwest Miami (Pct. 572), an argument was under way between the clerk standing outside and a group of campaign workers for a school board candidate. The campaign workers complained that people were walking in and out of the polling station wearing campaign t-shirts and buttons, violating the provision of the electoral law prohibiting campaigning inside the voting place. Indeed, BHHRG did see campaign workers for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride walking in and out of the schoolhouse, but the clerk explained that these persons were actually employees of the school who just happened to be wearing McBride t-shirts. Consulting his superior by cell phone, the young man determined that it was not possible to prevent school employees from entering their place of work, and also not appropriate to ask them to remove their shirts. The matter was never settled in BHHRG’s presence, and several threats were made against the clerk.
The clerk told BHHRG that exact information on the number of voters registered at this polling station was unavailable because they were “having a lot of problems with the machines,” but he added that a poll worker had told him there were over 2,000 on the voter list, and that about 400 had voted by 11:20 a.m. He added that there were no poll watchers in his polling station, and that he was serving in the capacity of clerk, assistant clerk, and poll deputy because he was short of personnel. One campaign worker told BHHRG that the big issue in this precinct was that the head of the local teachers’ union had sent an e-mail to each teacher asking them to give each pupil a note to take home to their parents urging them to vote for McBride. Another campaign worker here said it had taken her 45 minutes to vote using the new iVotronic machine.
BHHRG found two precincts (611 & 648) housed within the luxurious Biltmore Hotel in the Coral Gables neighborhood west of Miami. Voters walked past the large swimming pool, where people were eating lunch under a colonnaded passageway, to get to the voting area. Here, poll workers repeatedly came out into the corridor to warn BHHRG’s representative and a couple of university students reporting on the election for class to stay back. All attempts to obtain answers to basic questions were fruitless, as the poll workers said they had no information concerning the number of voters registered there, nor were they required to have such information. Continued requests for information finally resulted in the emergence of an elderly man in a baseball cap identifying himself as the “deputy sheriff.” Although he told BHHRG that “over 300 have already voted” (by 1:10 p.m.), he was unable to provide any information on the number of voters registered, saying that, “only the elections department has that information.” He said he had been a polling station worker many times in the past, but had “never seen” an actual list of registered voters, whether on the wall or in book form. A campaign worker outside the polling station said that there were a total of about 800 voters, although with the addition of another precinct since the last election she could not be sure. She did say that the precinct usually had a high turnout.
The same lack of information about numbers of registered voters was encountered at the Polish-American Club of Miami, Inc. (Precincts 545 & 989). The poll deputy said that Precinct 989 had joined 545 since the election in 2000, and he simply had no idea and doubted that anyone else did. He was apparently the only person around this polling station who spoke any English at all. At the New Mount Pleasant Institutional Baptist Church, Inc., in the northeastern Miami neighborhood of Little Haiti (Precincts 502 & 590), BHHRG was allowed inside. The Clerk told BHHRG that he believed at least 50% of the roughly 600-700 voters registered here had voted, but again he could not give exact figures. Precinct 590 had been added in 2000, and everything had been recorded in the computers, he said. There had never been any long lines at his polling place, no one had been turned away, and everything had always run very smoothly. Two voters entered the polling station while BHHRG was there.
Although the lack of information about registered voters was apparently the norm, it was not evidently the rule. At two polling stations, BHHRG found that this information was indeed available. At the Thena Crowder Elementary School (Precinct 507) in northwest Miami. But a county employee wearing a badge that said “media relations,” told BHHRG that there were exactly 1,210 registered voters at this polling station, and that about 320 voters had cast ballots by 3:00 p.m. It seemed odd that such precise information should be so readily available here but not elsewhere. However, as BHHRG learned, the Thena Crowder Elementary School had witnessed high-profile irregularities in 2000, including the turning-away of voters, and for the 2002 election it was serving as one of the four “media observation points” (i.e., media showcases) designed to create a good impression, so perhaps this was why the county official was able to pluck figures out of the air so quickly. Concerning the new voting machines, he said, “some people like the touch-screens” but he thought they were “not so good for the elderly.”
At the Sheraton Biscayne Bay Hotel (Precincts 541 & 984) in southeast Miami the voting area was on the second floor, accessible only by elevator. The poll deputy said he was unsure of the number of voters registered there. However, he did say that the voter register was an actual book with paper pages, not a file in a laptop computer hard drive. He said this polling station had always “done it the old way,” and thought this was for the best, adding that the new high-tech voting systems were probably not a good idea for guaranteeing fairness. Two people who may or may not have been voters entered the elevators during the ten minutes or so of conversation.
Finally, at the “Unity on the Bay” church in northeast Miami (Precincts 538 & 595), BHHRG saw very little activity at 5:00 p.m. From the vantage point at which BHHRG’s representative was made to stand, across the street, only three or four voters entered during a space of about fifteen minutes. Talking to two campaign workers outside, one for Gov. Bush and one for challenger Bill McBride, BHHRG learned that the new voting machines were very popular. But again, uncertainty was expressed about the reliability and trustworthiness of “virtual voting.” BHHRG watched this polling station close up, and was interested to note that the poll deputy urged an approaching voter to hurry up because the doors would be closed for good in exactly one minute. This was the proper time, but a few minutes later, another voter approached and was allowed in without a problem.
Above all, polling day was characterized by a very low turnout and widespread ignorance among polling station officials as to the most basic data usually expected to be at their fingertips. It was interesting, though inexplicable, that voters and others who were asked about the new voting machines almost all said they liked them because of the ease of use, but expressed uncertainty or disapproval when asked whether they trusted the system. Perhaps this serves as useful commentary about opinion polls in general, since questions phrased a certain way can always generate the desired result.
The complacency of voters despite their doubts about the new system was remarkable. For example, on the NPR radio station, several of the callers registered complaints about the voting process but added immediately how “proud” they were to be voting. Perhaps the most notable of these was a young woman who said it was “kind of weird” that at her polling station she saw ballot activator cartridges lying in a big pile on the table, and upon asking the poll worker sitting nearby whether or not this was “normal” was told that in fact it was not, and that the devices needed to be put away somewhere. The cartridges were not marked in any way so as to identify them, but were supposedly already used. But the caller then went on to say how fulfilling and enlivening her voting experience had been, and about how she planned to always take her children with her to polling stations for elections. There were also several callers expressing indignation about the fact that Miami was a focus of media attention, but also recounting troubling experiences at the polls.
All in all, BHHRG’s experience on polling day could not be described as reassuring, even compared with many countries in which BHHRG has observed elections where democracy is deemed by the West to be only in the “developing” stage. The new high-tech system did little to assuage fears that American electoral procedure may be sliding into the abyss. For one thing, one of the advantages of the new all-computerized voting systems was ostensibly to make counts more or less instant, yet there were instances where precincts in Miami-Dade had supposedly not finished counting ballots hours after polls closed. Surely, if everything was recorded instantly in computer databases, shouldn’t the figures have been available at the push of a button?