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"This was worse than the 2000 election," Cathleen Horton says of the problems she and other poll workers faced September 10. "If they're gonna use those machines, they should have made sure they was working properly. Somebody should have been there at 6 o'clock to make sure the machines were set up right and working properly. We had to wait and wait and wait and wait." Horton, a black woman in her mid-40s with a booming voice, expressive eyes, perfectly manicured fingernails, and exquisitely long toenails, has been a poll deputy for the past eight Broward County elections. She believes the recent vote was the worst ever.
It's likely Horton and other poll workers will face much of the same on November 5. Reports of the systemwide and sometimes shocking problems voters faced September 10 are still pouring in to the offices of candidates and civic organizations, and it seems unlikely that Broward County election officials will clean up the mess in time. Precinct 4S, where Horton worked, perfectly illustrates the chaos of that day.
From the day's start until its end, nothing seemed to go right for poll workers at 4S, which is located in the Charlie Will Thomas Park community center just west of Federal Highway in Dania Beach. The machines didn't work, the workers weren't prepared, the public unwittingly voted for candidates of the wrong party, would-be voters were turned away, and workers were made to toil ridiculously late.
The problems started just before 6 a.m., when Horton and the five other workers assigned to 4S, who were each paid $100 for the day, entered the community center. At the time, the workers didn't realize that this clean, neat, brick building with children's artwork and a hand-lettered, butcher-paper "We Will Not Forget" banner hanging inside would become their holding cell for the next 17 and a half hours. But it didn't take long to figure out that no one knew how to turn on the new, ATM-style voting machines.
Soon, the workers also determined that their assigned leader, who was charged with running the precinct, wasn't up to the job, Horton recalls: "The head clerk couldn't read and couldn't write. I'm serious. His sister is the head clerk at another [precinct], and she filled out his paperwork for him and sat by him during training to coach him through."
Poll deputy Mary Brown had worked as head clerk in previous elections, Horton says, "so we called down and asked Miriam [Oliphant, elections supervisor] if Mary Brown could be the head clerk because [the head clerk] can't read or write." According to Horton, Oliphant approved the change.
Rick Riley, Oliphant's public information officer, told New Timesthat neither Oliphant nor anyone else in her office would comment on issues related to polling places. Riley did not respond to a faxed list of questions regarding Precinct 4S.
Though polls were scheduled to open at 7 a.m., workers decided not to open the doors. They assumed a technician was en route. "When the people started getting here wanting to vote, they was angry," Horton says. "People was beating on the windows and the doors. They was angry and cussing, 'Let us fucking vote! Open these doors.' We couldn't get through to Miriam's office, so we called the police and asked them what we should do. It was getting crazy out there. I was getting scared."
Marilyn Lenard, a volunteer from a monitoring group called Election Protection, had been assigned to watch 4S. She arrived at 7 a.m. "I got there and found out that the poll wasn't even open.... I talked to one of the poll workers who said that they had absolutely no materials there. They had voting machines... [but] nothing to work with, no procedural manuals."
At 8:45, after a voter returned to the polling place a second time and was again turned away because the machines weren't working, Lenard recommended using paper ballots. So the doors were opened, and voting began.
After paper ballots were in use for about 45 minutes, a voter realized there was another problem. Lenard recalls, "One of the people came out of the polls saying that he was a Democrat and he had been given a Republican ballot, and it was only when he realized that there were no gubernatorial candidates listed on the ballot that he knew he had been given a Republican ballot. He talked again with the poll workers, and they were stunned that they had been handing out Republican ballots to Democratic voters."
Horton estimates that as many as 50 voters cast their ballots before poll workers realized the error. "We didn't think about whether the ballots were Democrat or Republican.... They sent us probably 400 Republican paper ballots and only about 50 Democratic ballots."
This is particularly problematic considering that more than 80 percent of 4S's 1240 registered voters are Democrats. It served as a painful reminder of the election problems these same voters faced in 2000. Three of every four voters in the precinct is African-American; some of them had complained of racist shenanigans during the 2000 election debacle.
But it wasn't only the black voters who complained this year. "Even the little white people got mad and were cussing," Horton recalls. Shifting into an exaggerated imitation of a white person's voice, she says, "They were saying, 'I'm not rich. I'm freakin' poor. Why the fuck I'm gonna vote Republican? Get my fucking shit up out of that box!' These little white people cussing! I was cracking up. That made my day hearing these white people say, 'I'm not gonna vote fucking Republican.' I was laughing so hard."