Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Problems Lead 8 States to Extend Some Voting Hours

The New York Times
Problems Lead 8 States to Extend Some Voting Hours

From a bomb threat in Wisconsin to glitches with electronic voting machines, polling places across the country tackled a variety of problems during the midterm election today that led at least eight states to extend voting hours in certain areas.

In Illinois, hundreds of precincts were kept open an extra hour and a half because of late openings at polling places related to machine problems. In Indiana, confusion over where to vote as well as voting equipment problems led to extensions of at least 30 minutes, in three counties.

Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Ohio, Georgia and North Carolina also extended some polling hours, according to a summary compiled by The Associated Press.

About four hours into the voting in Madison, Wis., a bomb threat shut down voting for about an hour as law enforcement authorities used dogs to search Madison East High School, where students were also attending classes.

Elections workers scrambled, removing ballots and booths to the sidewalk in front of the building and setting up voting outside.

“They voted outside for a good hour and a half,” said the city clerk, Maribeth Witzel-Behl, in a telephone interview. “Fortunately, it was a beautiful day here.”

A circuit court judge extended voting at the polling station for an hour, according to a spokesman for the Wisconsin elections board, Kyle Richmond.

In Kane County in Illinois, election workers did not boot up the electronic voting machines correctly in some areas, leading to delays of five minutes to four hours in opening polling stations in 223 precincts.

The equipment had worked well in the primaries, after county officials dealt with glitches in paper feeds, said the county clerk, John A. Cunningham, in a telephone interview. But just as a precaution, the county had deployed dozens of technicians in the field to be on hand today.

“We are a work in progress,” Mr. Cunningham said. “We will resolve the problems.”

With control of Congress hanging on a handful of races, many people have viewed the midterm election as a popular referendum on President Bush and the war in Iraq.

With about one-third of the precincts across the country using new electronic voting technology, a range of technical problems began frustrating voters in states like Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania soon after the polls opened.

Poll workers in Pittsburgh and parts of surrounding Allegheny County had trouble starting electronic machines today. Problems with printers and malfunctioning computers also cropped up, preventing at least some people from voting at 13 polling sites.

But no similar cluster of problems was reported elsewhere in Pennsylvania, so Barry Kaufmann, executive director of Common Cause/Pennsylvania, a voting rights group, said, “It sounds like there’s either not adequate training going on, or, in the worst-case scenario, a bad batch of computers.”

Election Data Services, a Washington-based consulting firm, said the chaos of the presidential election of 2000 and the enactment two years later of the Help America Vote Act had led to the biggest shift in voting equipment in United States history, affecting perhaps 55 million voters in today’s election. And changes were most common in smaller jurisdictions, which are often short of resources to correct election-day errors.

Some of the worst problems were reported in Marion County, Ind., which includes Indianapolis. Roughly half of the 914 precincts reported difficulties getting machines started. Insufficient training for poll workers was part of the problem, County Clerk Doris Ann Sadler told The Associated Press. Officials in 175 precincts were forced to turn to paper ballots.

Election officials in Delaware County, Ind., had said they would seek a court order to extend voting hours. Voters in 75 precincts were frustrated because the cards that activate machines apparently had been programmed incorrectly. A Circuit Court judge extended the voting until 8:40 p.m., The Indianapolis Star reported.

In Maryland, where serious machine problems caused chaos during the primary election in September, Montgomery County officials ordered election officials to check Monday night that they had the automated plastic cards needed to start machines. The cards had been omitted in some precincts in September, prompting Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, to suggest that voters might find absentee voting more reliable.

Senator Charles E. Schumer, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said that he and his House counterpart, Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, were encouraged by voter turnout but that they were looking into reports of voting irregularities or misinformation, especially in Maryland, where voters received literature that suggested, incorrectly, that the Republican Senate candidate, Michael Steele, who is African American, had been endorsed by Kweisi Mfume, the former head of the NAACP.

Mr. Schumer said Democrats quickly countered with their own literature, as well as a recorded telephone message from Mr. Mfume saying he endorses the Democrat, Representative Ben Cardin. Mr. Schumer said Democrats were also looking “an occasional report” of problems in the Kansas City area, but “nothing that’s overwhelming.”

In New Jersey, Republican officials said that close to two dozen voters across the state had complained that when they entered the voting booth, the name of Senator Robert Menendez was already lighted, and that it could be de-selected only by pressing it again. A party official, Mark Sheridan, told reporters that this had caused widespread confusion, and led some people to inadvertently vote for Mr. Menendez.

“We’re not sure exactly what the cause of it is,” Mr. Sheridan, the Republican state committee counsel, said in a conference call with reporters, “but it’s become too widespread to believe it’s a coincidence.”

He suggested that the problem was either “a significant computer malfunction or an attempt by someone to manipulate the vote.” Mr. Sheridan said that state authorities had been notified.

In a crucial Senate race in Virginia, some machines displayed, on their summary page, only the first name and middle initial of James H. Webb, the Democrat seeking to unseat Senator George Allen in an extremely close race. Mr. Webb’s full name appeared on the actual voting screen. The problem had been reported earlier but not fixed.

The F.B.I. was investigating claims in Virginia of voter intimidation and polling place misdirection, according to several reports. ABC News said it had obtained an audio file of a phone message left for one registered voter in which a caller, claiming to be from the State Board of Elections, told the voter that he was not registered in Virginia and that he would be criminally prosecuted if he attempted to vote.

The Webb campaign said it believed Republicans were behind the calls; Republican officials denied this.

In other parts of Virginia, voting was said to be running heavy, and going smoothly.

As in Indianapolis, inadequate training appeared likely to have contributed to troubles in some precincts. One machine used in many precincts, the AccuVote TSX, is delivered with a setup guide that includes 42 steps. Problems had been expected.

In Cleveland, voters rolled their eyes as election workers fumbled with new touch-screen machines that they could not start, The Associated Press reported.

“We got five machines — one of them’s got to work,” said Willette Scullank, a troubleshooter for the elections board in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.

In the Columbus area, the Franklin County phone system collapsed amid a crush of calls from voters and poll workers, The Columbus Dispatch reported. A similar collapse in the May 2 primary delayed final returns until 2 a.m.

Some machines in Hartford, Conn., were closed temporarily, and paper ballots issued, after the machines failed to display some candidates’ names, The Hartford Courant reported on its Web site.

Minor troubles were reported in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties in southern Florida, the scene of many of the problems that caused the election debacle in the 2000 presidential elections. Secretary of State Sue Cobb told The A.P. that she did not expect serious problems with the touch-screen machines.

“History has shown that the machines are far more accurate than paper so we’re quite confident in it,” Ms. Cobb said.

Both the Justice Department and private groups are supplying added observers, legal advisers and election-machine companies like Diebold provided hundreds of technicians in case of trouble.

Some states had passed new voter identification requirements, meant to reduce fraud. But some courts have struck down identity requirements as possibly discriminatory.

In Missouri, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, the state’s top election official, was asked to show identification — three times — while casting an absentee ballot on Friday despite a recent state high court ruling upholding a lower court decision that photo I.D.’s were not necessary to vote.

“I was asked repeatedly for identification,” Ms. Carnahan said. “The law is very clear.”

And in Louisville, Ky., a poll worker was arrested today after being accused of choking a voter and pushing him out the door, Paula McCraney, a spokeswoman for the Jefferson County Clerk, told The A.P. The cause of the dispute was unclear.

“That about tops off the day,” Ms. McCraney said.

Democratic Party officials in Colorado asked a judge to extend voting hours after lines grew to as many as 300 in Denver, The Associated Press said.

Lisa Doran, a spokeswoman for Colorado’s secretary of state, said, “Despite the training, some of the election judges are intimidated by the machines.”

Reporting was contributed by Brian Knowlton, Richard Stevenson and Ian Urbina from Washington, and Jim Orso from St. Louis.