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The Miami Herald

Touch-screen danger: slow voting, long lines

Early-voting patterns suggest that the time it takes voters to cast ballots on touch-screen machines will be critical to a smooth Election Day.

October 24, 2004

If voters on Election Day spend the same amount of time casting ballots as some early voters have, South Florida polling places could be overwhelmed Nov. 2 with long lines that drag into the night, frustrated voters and delays in reporting election returns.

The Herald spent two days in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties observing more than 400 voters at several early-voting sites.

On Election Day in Miami-Dade, at least 516,000 voters are expected at the polls to vote on 6,466 machines. That means each machine, on average, must accommodate 80 voters throughout the day.

Yet, when The Herald monitored 14 machines during a consistently busy two-hour period of early voting, the process moved more slowly. At the pace observed, nearly six voters an hour, only 71 people per machine would vote by the normal closing time on Election Day.

To take pressure off Election Day, officials are urging people to show up at early-voting sites, where waits, especially after lunch, have been relatively short.

''I'm wracking my brain,'' said Miami-Dade Election Supervisor Constance A. Kaplan. ``I wish I could go out and buy more equipment to make it a better ratio.''


Anyone in line by closing time -- 7 p.m. -- will be allowed to vote ''no matter how long it takes,'' Kaplan said.


In Broward, where the ballot is shorter, voters moved more quickly. Seventy-five early voters took an average of eight minutes 12 seconds. Broward has about the same number of registered voters as Miami-Dade, but it has fewer machines, and so far, fewer people are showing up for early voting.

Unless many more people vote early in Broward County, every machine on Election Day would have to record a vote every eight minutes seven seconds to finish in the 12 hours the polls are open.


The extra minutes and seconds may seem small, but compounded by more than a million voters expected in Miami-Dade and Broward on Election Day, voter advocates fear that they leave dangerously slim margins.

''If the lines are long, some people just give up. So it's a serious concern,'' said Douglas Jones, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa and a consultant to the Miami-Dade Elections Department. ``And if the lines are long just in Dade County and short in the rest of the state, you have a discrimination case in the making.''



Regardless, election officials and experts advise both early voters and Election Day voters to show up at times other than midmorning or after work, when lines are the longest. And they say that employers need to be accommodating.

''The county needs to take executive action and start using the bully pulpit to urge employers to schedule voting breaks at odd times a day and encourage people to early vote,'' said Jones, the Miami-Dade election consultant.

Jones' advice to voters: Study the ballot in advance so your time is used efficiently. Miami-Dade's ballot takes up to 20 separate screens, with eight proposed constitutional amendments and eight county bond questions, in addition to presidential, congressional, state and local races.

Moreover, it takes longer to vote on the touch-screen machines than on the punch cards used in 2000.

''The punch cards were really a lot faster,'' Jones said. With the electronic machines, it takes several seconds to move from one page to the next, and the voter is guided through the entire ballot regardless of whether they want to see it.

© 2004 Herald.com and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.