MIAMI – Florida's first big test of its new elections system turned into a nightmare Tuesday as polling station opened late and dramatic problems cropped up with the touchscreen voting machines brought in after the 2000 debacle. Hundreds of would-be voters were turned away.
Gov. Jeb Bush ordered polls statewide to stay open an additional two hours, and many did -- but others refused the order and closed at 7 p.m. as scheduled. At one precinct, residents said poll workers refused to reopen the doors and shouted profanities at would-be voters.
Bush had sharp words for officials in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, where there were many complaints.
"It's shameful," Bush said. "The state put up money -- significant sums of money -- for training, for machines. ... There's no excuse for not having precinct workers in a precinct for voting, no excuse for not turning on the machines."
Problems were reported in 14 of Florida's 67 counties, including six of the seven that were sued after the 2000 vote. The glitches ran the gamut: Ballots jamming and tearing in machines, workers unable to get machines working for hours, at least 600 people leaving polls without casting votes, Democratic voters given Republican ballots.
In Miami-Dade County, there were seven precincts that had not been processed as of early Wednesday because voting machines had not been shut down properly, said Giselas Salas, assistant supervisor of elections.
Police had been sent to those polling stations to pick up the electronic cartridges that register the votes, Salas said. She said it would be at least an hour before they will know how many ballots were uncounted.
"I frankly wonder what in the hell have they been doing for two years," said Secretary of State Jim Smith, Florida's top elections official.
The state changed voting laws and outlawed punchcard ballots after the 2000 presidential election. It spent $32 million to reform its election system, and more than half of the state's voters were expected to use new touchscreen machines instead of punchcard and butterfly ballots.
But problems began immediately.
Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who was seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Bush this fall, was delayed from voting after workers struggled to get the touchscreen machines operating. She waited several minutes while an election official booted up one of the 18 machines. Some voters left, exasperated.
Elsewhere, ballots jammed as workers put them through optical scanners and dozens of polls workers didn't show up.
"It's deja vu all over again," said Democratic national Chairman Terry McAuliffe. "Even before the polls close, we know that election reform in Florida has failed its first test."
Republican national Chairman Marc Racicot said some problems could have been expected in the first election after such widespread changes.
With just over two months before the next federal elections, the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate have passed separate elections overhaul measures.
Miami-Dade, Broward, Volusia, Duval, Hillsborough and Orange Counties were among those where problems were reported. All six had been sued after the 2000 vote.
Among the other glitches Tuesday:
-- In a predominantly black Miami neighborhood, voting at one precinct didn't begin until 11:45 a.m., nearly five hours after polls were supposed to open. Officials said 500 people left without voting.
-- At a nearby precinct, the touchscreen machines stopped working at 11:50 a.m. and were shut down for nearly five hours, causing more than 100 would-be voters to be turned away, election worker Kerry Martin said.
-- In populous Orange County, election workers said 42 percent of ballots would have to be counted by hand because they were tearing as they were fed through optical scanning machines, making them unreadable.
-- In Broward County, which has more registered voters than any other Florida county, some precincts didn't open on time because poll workers didn't show up. One opened nearly two hours late because workers didn't have the right equipment.
-- Also in Broward, some polling stations closed at the original scheduled time despite Bush's order. None of the precincts that closed early were reopened, officials said. Resident Richard Knips, 43, said poll workers at one site declined to open the doors after 7 p.m., and that one poll worker cursed at him and others. At least 30 people showed up to vote after the poll closed.
-- In Palm Beach, workers at one precinct shut off the voting machines at 7 p.m. They couldn't be turned back on and the remaining voters had to use paper ballots.
The election protection program, made up of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights groups, said they documented dozens of problems in at least four counties. Members dismissed the decision to extend poll hours.
"It's not going to solve the problem because a lot of people won't be able to come back or will be discouraged from coming back," said Elliott Mincberg, vice president of People for the American Way.
Still, Palm Beach County elections chief Theresa LePore said she faced few problems. Some poll workers didn't show up, so some polls had minimal staffing levels, but all opened on time.
"So far, so good," she said.