WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Some Floridians may have to wait even longer than expected to get their true election tally, FOX News has learned.
The state's elections supervisor, Constance Kaplan, (search) warned Miami-Dade County officials that absentee ballots won't begin to be counted until Thursday, according to some Republican strategists. Legally, absentee ballots cannot be counted until Election Day but Tuesday's large turnout will keep county supervisors from even beginning to examine the mail-in ballots, FOX News has learned.
Of the 80,000 to 100,000 absentee ballots to be counted, Republican absentee voters outnumber Democrats in Miami-Dade County (search) by about 2-to-1. But officials believe a strong early-voting push by Democrats may have erased that advantage.
Elsewhere in Florida, nine voting machines ran out of battery power and nearly 40 votes may have been lost in Palm Beach County, the first major problem reported on Election Day in the state that was the epicenter of the election fiasco four years ago.
The machines at a Boynton Beach precinct weren't plugged in properly, and their batteries wore down around 9:30 a.m., said Marty Rogol spokesman for Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Theresa LePore.
Poll clerk Joyce Gold said 37 votes appeared to be missing after she compared the computer records to the sign-in sheet. Election officials won't know exactly how many votes were lost until after polls close.
She said voters seemed "very distressed" at the prospect of losing their votes.
"When it happened I was really panicking. They were panicking," Gold said.
Florida spent $32 million to reform its voting system after the state put the 2000 presidential election in limbo for 36 days. One infamous problem occurred in Palm Beach County, where voters said a confusing "butterfly ballot" (search) designed by LePore caused them to vote for the wrong presidential candidate.
Touch-screen machines may eliminate a repeat of many of the 2000 problems, but the last presidential election drew so much attention that Tuesday's voting took place under unprecedented scrutiny.
Critics say the ATM-type machines used by more than half of Florida's voters in 15 counties are vulnerable to tampering and glitches. U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, a Democrat, unsuccessfully sued to add a paper trail to the machines, which he says cannot meet a state requirement for manual recounts.
Ben Wilcox, a spokesman for Common Cause, said the organization's hotline has gotten more than 15,000 calls from voters in the state.
"It's hard to really say at this point whether there's going to be the overall disaster that there was in 2000," he said. "I do think we will have new election related issues to work on and address following this election."
Richard Schultz of West Palm Beach wasn't confident that votes would be properly counted. "I think there can always be fraud with computers," he said.
Some trouble was reported at one county that doesn't use touch-screens. About half of the 1,500 paper ballots at a polling place in Seminole County got wet, and elections supervisor Dennis Joyner said he didn't know how it happened. The wet ballots were replaced quickly by a fresh shipment of ballots.
Voters seem more determined than ever to get to the polls after the last presidential election that put President Bush in the White House over Democrat Al Gore by a mere 537 votes. About 2 million Floridians cast early or absentee ballots — nearly 21/2 times the number of people who voted early in 2000.
Lines were long again Tuesday as millions turned out to decide the race between Bush and Democrat John Kerry. The secretary of state's office reported smooth poll openings statewide, though Orange County officials said one precinct opened 11 minutes late. One precinct in Hialeah in Miami-Dade County opened about 45 minutes late because elections officials had to update the voter rolls with early voting information.
About 500 students waited in a line that snaked outside and around the corner of the Convocation Center on the campus of the University of Miami, which only had five machines for the students to vote on.
Lindsey Graham, 21, left the line after waiting 21/2 hours and moving only a few feet. She said she may try to return before polls close but she was "tired, hot and bored" and she needed to study for her biology class.
"I'm voting for Kerry if I ever get in there," she said.
Even before Election Day, Republicans and Democrats accused each other of election fraud. Independent groups blamed election supervisors for delayed absentee ballots and mishandled voter registrations. Voters complained of long lines and poorly trained poll workers in early voting.
Barring an unlikely landslide, the end of the wrangling is not in sight.
In Seminole County, Circuit Judge Nancy Alley granted an injunction Tuesday to a Republican poll watcher who sued Democrats to stop the distribution of fliers threatening party poll watchers with legal action if they challenged voters.
Republican attorneys claimed the fliers scared off 200 GOP poll watchers statewide, while Democrats said the issue was a political one that should not have been dealt with in the courts. Democrats said an appeal is planned.
Twenty-one touch-screen voting machines in Broward County were replaced because of technical problems, said Gisela Salas, the county's deputy supervisor of elections. At least one of the machines had shown votes cast for the wrong candidates.
The machines were taken to the county's voter equipment center to extract the votes that had been cast.
Also in Broward, a small number of voters who went to the wrong precinct in Pompano Beach were given provisional ballots, which the county acknowledged was a mistake. Provisional ballots must be cast in precincts where voters are registered. Officials said they will contact voters about the mistake.
The Election Protection Coalition, a group with volunteer poll monitors, said dozens of voters reported problems. Voters in several counties reported that polling place names didn't match addresses.
Complaints also came from voters in Broward County, where absentee ballots were distributed late. Some voters were told they couldn't cast a ballot because they were listed as absentees, while other poll workers allowed residents to vote but warned any absentee ballots in their name would be destroyed, said coalition spokesman Reggie Johnson.
At least three precincts in Tallahassee reported problems Tuesday with optical scanners. Voters filled out ballots and placed them in a sealed box for counting later as workers tried to fix the scanner problem.
In Volusia County, workers were to recount 13,244 ballots cast during early voting because a memory card failed Monday when a machine was being moved. "We have all the ballots, and they will be counted," Supervisor of Elections Deanie Lowe said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.