Broward officials address complaints on absentee ballots, phone lines

Florida county criticized

group urges suspension of local elections chief

October 28, 2004|By Scott Wyman and Jean-Paul Renaud | Scott Wyman and Jean-Paul Renaud,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Hoping to avoid another presidential election fiasco, Broward County officials scrambled yesterday to replace tens of thousands of missing absentee ballots, reduce long waits for early voting and shore up a telephone system deluged with calls from angry voters.

A day after acknowledging that as many as 58,000 absentee ballots have not reached voters who requested them, elections supervisor Brenda Snipes decided to mail new ones. She will pay extra for overnight delivery for those sent outside Broward in hopes of ensuring voters can return them before Tuesday's deadline.

County commissioners also assigned 40 employees to help answer phone calls at Snipes' office and process people in line at early voting sites. More workers could follow as Snipes contemplates extending early voting hours and adds more lines to the telephone system.

Some of the problems are the same ones that have affected other Broward elections over the past four years. Long lines of frustrated voters were common in the 2000 and 2002 elections, while 268 absentee ballots were misplaced during the September 2002 primary.

"There's been a whole lot of partisanship about the election, so everything that happens is magnified," said Snipes, a Democrat. "But when we see something functioning like it shouldn't, we fix it immediately."

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference called yesterday for Republican Gov. Jeb Bush to suspend Snipes, a retired educator whom he appointed last year.

State officials said the only complaints they've received about early voting have come from Broward and Palm Beach counties. And a national hot line set up by a coalition of civil rights groups reports twice as many complaints about Broward as any other community.

Snipes said she became aware that absentee ballots were missing a week ago and has been working to figure out what went wrong and fix it. Her staff believes that many of those missing were in the first batch of ballots mailed after the office began processing requests Oct. 7.

Although there are some 58,000 ballots not accounted for, Snipes expects that many are actually in the hands of voters waiting to be mailed back and thus the problem will turn out to be much smaller.

She said that about 14,000 completed ballots arrived yesterday and that others had been deposited in the office's drop-off box and at early voting locations. She estimated that she will resend no more than 20,000 ballots.

She pointed the finger at the U.S. Postal Service as the source of the mix-up. She said that all ballots are postmarked the day voters request them and that they are then taken by courier to the post office's main facility in Fort Lauderdale for delivery.

But the postal service says it is not to blame. The agency said in a statement that special employees are assigned to handle all ballots and that those sent locally should arrive in one day.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement launched an investigation into the missing ballots yesterday, but concluded that there was no criminal wrongdoing.

Postal inspectors also investigated and determined there had been no delays in the agency's handling of ballots.

Volunteers began helping Snipes' office package the ballots yesterday evening. All should be mailed out by tomorrow morning at the latest, but must be returned by the end of business Tuesday.

Officials argue that there is no conspiracy to prevent voting, but said the number of people seeking to vote is overwhelming Broward's election machinery. Turnout is expected to top 70 percent, with almost 90,000 people already casting ballots at early voting sites and 127,000 requesting absentee ballots.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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