The Dania Dilemma
"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 Times that 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."
Around 10 a.m., poll workers again called Oliphant's office to say that registered Democrats had been voting on Republican ballots and had asked to vote again. According to Horton, Oliphant told them to allow them to vote again when the machines were working. "We called Miriam and asked Miriam, 'Since they dropped it in the box, can they vote on the machines?'" Horton recalls. "She said, 'Well those ballots won't be counted.' But once that box is sealed, we can't open it back up, so we couldn't just take their votes out."
New Times was unable to learn whether these ballots were discarded or counted twice.
Things did not improve as the day progressed. Even after the technician arrived at 10:30 a.m., the machines continued to malfunction, Horton says. The technician had to return five times. More disturbing, she says voters complained throughout the day that their votes were registering wrong. "When they voted on the term limits, they'd vote no and it would come out saying yes," Horton says. "You had to punch it three times before it said no. You had to go back and clear it, and then it'd say yes again, and you had to go back and clear it and it'd say yes again, and the third time, after you'd clear it, it'd say no."
Around noon, Horton and the others were getting hungry. The poll workers had all been there since 6 a.m. and expected that someone would bring them lunch, as had happened in elections past. So they waited... for a meal that would never come.
By 3 p.m., word had filtered back to organizations like the NAACP and the People for the American Way Foundation that all was not well at the precincts. These groups only recently settled the lawsuit they brought against Florida after 2000's election problems. So as the day's voting problems accumulated, a slimly attended press conference was held at the Fort Lauderdale NAACP headquarters on Sistrunk Boulevard. There, local and national officials from the above groups and a few others hinted that legal action might again be needed. Although many precincts in Broward County experienced problems, only 4S was named.
Back at Charlie Will Thomas Park community center, things weren't improving. In addition to the malfunctioning machines, 4S was one of voting areas to have been redistricted this year. Some people who had been voting at the community center for years arrived to learn that they had been reassigned to precinct 3S. That polling place was at the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, nearly two miles away.
"I've been voting here for ten years," said Arthur Willis, standing outside the community center at 4 p.m. "Now they're telling me to go to a different place, that I can't vote here. But I don't have transportation. I can't get over there, so I guess I just won't be voting this year." Willis says that the card he received in the mail listed him as a 4S voter.
An Election Protection volunteer, who would not give his name, speculated that Willis had likely received a second card reassigning him to the other place. The volunteer said that many voters did not receive the second cards until just days before Election Day and that some did not get the follow-up notice at all.
"Poll workers should have been able to direct people to the right precinct to vote," said Elliot Mincberg, vice president of the People for the American Way Foundation. "Some poll workers, by no means all, but some poll workers did not follow the law on how to vote. For example, some people were told that if they did not have their ID with them, they could not vote. Even though, under state law, all they needed to do was sign an affirmation saying that they are who they say they are."
Horton says many voters were turned away because of redistricting confusion. "One lady, she lives right there next to the park, and they told her she has to go to Pro Bass. She's in a wheelchair. She said, 'I've been voting here since they first let us vote in 1965.' How's she gonna get to Pro Bass? Somebody gonna roll her over there in her wheelchair?"
Redistricting problems were reported at precincts all over the county and were part of the reason Gov. Jeb Bush ordered the polls to stay open until 9 p.m. "We had six people there, and everybody stayed the whole time," Horton says. "Once you make that commitment, you can't just walk out and leave."
Horton plans to work the polls at 4S again on November 5, but she has a few ideas for making the process run smoother. "They can fix it all in time. The next time, they should have the technician right there when the poll workers come at 6. He could set up the machines right then, and we'd have from 6 until 7 to correct the problems. And they need to make sure they send out the packages, the envelopes, and the boxes and everything, that we have all the right materials."
Four days after the troubled election, Johnny P. Nesbitt sits in a white plastic lawn in his front yard across the street from Charlie Will Thomas Park. He takes offense that Broward County election officials are blaming some of this year's problems on voter error. "Honest to God, I know how to vote," Nesbitt says. "But the best thing to do is to quit voting in the State of Florida. You ain't gonna do no good, 'cause something's going wrong here. From now on, I quit voting. It can't make things no worse. Something's going wrong here."
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.