America: Problems crop up early as poll workers tangle with new voting machines, databases, ID rules

Programming errors and inexperience dealing with electronic voting machines frustrated poll workers in hundreds of precincts Tuesday, delaying voters in several states and leaving some with little choice but to use paper ballots instead.

Programming errors and inexperience dealing with electronic voting machines frustrated poll workers in hundreds of precincts Tuesday, delaying voters in several states and leaving some with little choice but to use paper ballots instead.

In Virginia, state election officials called in the FBI after several voters complained about getting phone messages that sent them to the wrong precincts.

Many of the voting machine problems surfaced as the polls were opening.

In Cleveland, voters rolled their eyes as election workers fumbled with new touchscreen machines that they couldn't get to start properly.

``We got five machines -- one of them's got to work,' said Willette Scullank, a trouble shooter from the Cuyahoga County, Ohio, elections board.


In Indiana's Marion County, electronic optical-scan machines that read paper ballots initially weren't working right in more than 100 precincts. Poll workers had trouble using a computer port to connect those machines to new touchscreen models, which handicapped voters use, County Clerk Doris Anne Sadler said.

Election officials in Delaware County, Ind., and Lebanon County, Pa., extended polling hours because of early machine troubles blamed on bad programming.

In Colorado, Democratic Party officials said they would ask a state judge to keep Denver polling places open an extra two hours Tuesday because of long lines. Power failures in the area had knocked out laptops used to verify voter registration, forcing workers to call the central office for information.

Jonah Goldman of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law characterized the troubles as systematic -- small problems that cropped up across the nation but didn't become catastrophic breakdowns in any one location. He said a national Election Protection coalition logged 9,000 calls by noon on hotline.

``Lots of fender benders, but no major tie-ups,' said Doug Chapin, director of, a nonpartisan group that tracks voting changes. ``It's been a steady drumbeat but nothing that rises to the level of `This could compromise the results.''

With a third of Americans voting on new equipment and voters navigating new registration databases and changing ID rules, election watchdogs had worried about polling problems even before the voting began.

At some Broward County, Fla., precincts, electronic ballots were mixed up and, in one case, a poll worker unintentionally wiped the electronic ballot activators. Some machines in Miami County, Ohio, jammed when they were turned on. In Sugar Land, Texas, one location suspended voting for 45 minutes because it received the wrong machine.

In Kentucky, a school board race was inadvertently left off the touchscreen ballot in two precincts in Bourbon County, requiring the county clerk to make paper ballots on the spot, officials said.


In Illinois, some voters found the new equipment cumbersome.

``People seem to be very confused about how to use the new system,' said Bryan Blank, a 33-year-old librarian from Oak Park, Ill. ``There was some early morning disarray.'

But voting equipment companies said they hadn't seen anything beyond the norm and blamed most of the problems on human error.

``Any time there's more exposure to equipment, there are questions about setting up the equipment and things like that,' said Ken Fields, a spokesman for Election Systems & Software Inc. ``Overall, things are going very well.'

Diebold Inc. spokesman David Bear said he knew of no problems preventing people from voting or affecting the core technology.

Some voters even liked the new ballots.

``It was much clearer on what you were voting for and you made sure you absolutely were voting for what you wanted to vote for,' said Cathy Schaefer, 59, of Cincinnati.

In a few places, the voting problems that surfaced had nothing to do with machines.


A poll worker in Louisville, Ky., was arrested after he was accused of choking and pushing a voter out the door.

In Columbus, Ohio, a break-in at a school that doubles as a polling place delayed voters while police investigated. About 100 North Carolina voters ended up waiting nearly an hour at a church because the person with the key was late.

In Virginia, the State Board of Election asked the FBI to investigate after it got a series of complaints about phone calls to voters giving them the wrong polling place information or telling them they couldn't vote. New Mexico Democrats had reported similar complaints earlier. In Ohio, the Athens County prosecutor also warned voters there to be wary of fraudulent calls about precinct changes.

There were also some more obscure problems.

In suburban Pittsburgh, some locations opened late because the machines couldn't be zeroed out, so workers weren't sure votes from past elections had been cleared.

Republicans in Passaic County, N.J., complained a ballot had been pre-marked on some machines with a vote for the Democratic Senate candidate; the state attorney general was looking into the matter.

Although turnout generally is lower in midterm elections, this year was the deadline for many of the election changes enacted in the wake of the Florida balloting chaos of 2000. The 2002 Help America Vote Act, among other things, required or helped states to replace outdated voting equipment and establish voter registration databases.

Control of Congress is also at stake this year, and because individual congressional races are generally decided by fewer votes than presidential contests, any problems at the polls are more likely to affect the outcome.


According to Election Data Services, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm, 32 percent of registered voters were using equipment added since the 2004 elections.

Nearly half of all voters were using optical-scan systems that ask them to fill in blanks, with ballots then fed into a computer. Thirty-eight percent were casting votes on touchscreen machines that have been criticized as susceptible to hackers.

Just getting to the right polling place with the right identification posed a challenge for some voters.

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford was turned away the first time because he didn't have a voter registration card.

Many states established voter registration databases for the first time and found problems matching drivers' license and Social Security data with voter rolls, sometimes simply because of a middle initial.

But election officials say they avoided their worst fears.

``As of right now things are rolling smoothly,' said Florida Secretary of State Sue Cobb. ``We're not real happy with the weather but it's not so bad and we hope that everybody will go out and vote.'

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