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New Orleans Beset With Voting Snafus

A last-ditch effort to extend polling hours in New Orleans (search) — where voting machine malfunctions and poll-worker mistakes allegedly disenfranchised thousands of voters — was rejected by a judge Tuesday night.

Voting activists had sought an emergency order that would have kept the polls open until 10 p.m. — two hours past the standard closing time. The goal was to give more time to those who either left the polls without voting because of delays today," said Alaina Beverly, an attorney with the Legal Defense Fund (search), based in New York. Beverly and Bill Quigley helped file the suit for the Louisiana Election Protection Program (search).

Civil District Court Judge Sidney Cates gave no reason for the denial.

Beverly said the judge seemed sympathetic, but felt there were other legal remedies to pursue later besides extending poll hours at the last minute. If the Election Protection Program pursues further legal action, it likely would not affect Tuesday's results. Rather, it would be aimed at ensuring better training for poll workers in future elections, Beverly said.

Secretary of State Fox McKeithen, joined by lawyers for the Republican Party, argued that making exceptions to the legislative framework for when polls should open and close could undermine the Louisiana's elections system and hurt other voters' rights.

Republican attorney Harry Rosenberg said he never argued against the claims of machine malfunctions and poll commissioner mistakes.

"The central issue for us is: do you give certain individuals special treatment. And you cannot do that," Rosenberg said. "That was the reason we opposed it, and in addition to preserve the rights of voters who've already cast their votes and who expect the polls to be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. as the Legislature has ordained."

Quigley said his group had received numerous complaints of poll commissioners wrongly applying federal and state rules governing the use of paper provisional ballots.

Quigley said that, in many instances, voters whose names appeared on the rolls but who were taking part in their first presidential election were told not to use the regular electronic voting booths. They were instructed to fill out provisional ballots. Such ballots were only supposed to be used by those whose names could not be found on the rolls or on the secretary of state's master list.

"There's a tremendous misunderstanding [by poll workers] of what the provisional ballot is about," Quigley said. "We also have a number of complaints about people being denied the right to vote because they don't have drivers' licenses."

Voters are supposed to have the option of showing other valid photo identification or utility bills and even may sign affidavits swearing that they are who they say they are.

Beverly said her group also had reports of machine malfunctions at 29 precincts, including one case in which no one could vote until 9 a.m.

"That caused long lines. That caused frustration and confusion. Many voters were frustrated and left their polling place," she said.

Precinct workers were forced to tell voters to come back because of problems including machines that did not boot up properly.

"New Orleans wins the award for the worst voting situation in the country when it comes from electronic voting machines," said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (search).

Most of the concern over voting troubles statewide centered on New Orleans, where late delivery of machines for balloting on Sept. 18 forced a court-ordered replay of a juvenile court judge election.

McKeithen did not seem to think the problems were as bad as those who complained made them sound.

"We are having a totally normal election and we think we have the best election system in the country," he said.

McKeithen said only six of New Orleans' 850 voting machines had mechanical problems on Tuesday, three of them because polling commissioners accidentally turned them off, meaning they could not be restarted. Replacement machines were delivered and voting continued as normal, he said.

McKeithen said his office received numerous reports of machines not working, but most turned out to be false. He blamed "roving bands of lawyers, Democrats and Republicans, all these interested parties."

"They start telling rumors, and that's the biggest problem we've had today is the rumors," McKeithen said.

Elections officials also went to the polls in Tangipahoa Parish to clear up confusion about provisional ballots.

Another potential problem was heavy rain that covered much of the state at one time or another Tuesday. Street flooding was reported in the New Orleans and Lake Charles areas. Still, lines were often long and the rain did not appear to deter many voters.

"That's what's surprising me," said Paulette Dartez, election director with the Calcasieu Parish Clerk of Court's Office, where poll workers were busy.

Lines Tuesday evening were estimated to be as long as five hours at a polling place at Xavier University in New Orleans.

Long lines of voters also formed in central and north Louisiana, despite heavy rain. In one Ouachita Parish precinct, 30 percent of the voters had cast ballots by 9 a.m., officials said.

Umbrella in hand, Ethel Noble, 82, was surprised at how many people already were in line when she arrived at her Ouachita Parish poll in the late morning.

"I had to drive around today looking for a place to park to go vote," Noble said. "I think everybody's voting today because they want to get the right man in office."