Long lines, busy signals fuel voting frustration in Broward
By Jean-Paul Renaud
Staff Writer for The
Sun-Sentinel A South Florida Newspaper
The Broward County Supervisor of Elections Office pointed a finger at the U.S. Postal Service on Tuesday for nearly 60,000 missing absentee ballots, but took the blame for having a phone system that was being overwhelmed by calls from frustrated voters.
While the post office denied responsibility for the missing ballots, Broward County commissioners, anxious to avoid another failed election, offered to send county employees to help with the phones. Dozens of employees could begin assisting the elections office today to answer telephone calls and to process voters at the 14 early voting sites.
"What we are seeing is unprecedented, so if the supervisor of elections needs our help, we will help," County Mayor Ilene Lieberman said. "It's a week to the election, and voting is a basic right in our country."
Just six days away from the general election, the Supervisor of Elections Office has fielded hundreds of complaints from people that have yet to receive their absentee ballot. Countless more have been unable to get through to election officials to complain or get their questions answered.
"I tried for the last week or so to call the elections office and it's just busy continually," said Paula Zubatkin, 70, whose four-week-old request for an absentee ballot has gone unanswered. "I want to vote."
Election officials also said they launched an investigation and found that many of the missing ballots -- 58,000 of them -- were sent on Oct. 7 and Oct 8. The problem, they say, lies with the post office.
"That is something beyond our control," Deputy Supervisor of Elections Gisela Salas said. "We really have no idea what's going on. It's just taken an extraordinary amount of time. I would really encourage people to use early voting."
Post office officials say they are not at fault.
"We have employees that we assign to handle the absentee ballots that come in," said Enola C. Rice, spokeswoman for the Postal Service's South Florida District. "So all the absentee ballots that are received by the Postal Service are processed and delivered immediately."
She said most local mail is delivered in one day.
Some, like 68-year-old Myrna Davis, depended on her absentee ballot to vote. The Sunrise resident's husband has an artificial hip. After they waited weeks for an absentee ballot, they decided to go to an early voting site. But after a three-hour wait in line, they gave up.
"The heat was too great," Davis said. "Although there was air conditioning, there were so many people there, I couldn't tolerate it."
Local college students attending Florida State University in Tallahassee are frustrated because they have yet to receive absentee ballots and are unable to reach officials in Broward County. They have been calling Leon County's supervisor of elections, where the university is, to ask for help.
"Students have told us that they can't communicate with Broward County right now," said Ion Sancho, Leon County's supervisor of elections. "The only way that they can ask for an absentee ballot is electronically to Broward County: E-mail, fax or Web services."
Those living out of town can call Broward election officials and request another ballot, which officials said will be sent through overnight mail.
As of Tuesday, 126,220 absentee ballots have been requested from Broward County elections officials and 67,249 people have voted early, Salas said.
Broward election officials say they are overwhelmed. Their phone lines were never equipped to handle the volume of calls they have experienced, they say, and they blame their limitations on the confined spaces within the county administration building.
"It's a real, real problem," Salas said.
County officials say the elections office, which oversees more than 1 million voters, has 158 available lines. But throughout the day, voters who call the office are greeted by busy signals or filled voicemails.
"They're inundated, they're inundated," Salas said. "My phone mail is constantly full. I clear my voice mails twice a day and I have 30 each time."
In comparison, the Miami-Dade elections office, which manages slightly fewer registered voters, has 400 available lines, according to Seth Kaplan of Miami-Dade elections.
The possibility of adding more phone lines or staff before Nov. 2, election officials say, looks dim. Salas said there would be about 6,000 poll workers on Election Day. Miami-Dade will have 7,000, Kaplan said.
"I don't know that we could get any more people and more resources," Salas said. "At this point in time, training is coming to a close. Clerks are picking up their supplies on Friday. Everything is wrapping up by now."
At the Southwest Regional Library in Pembroke Pines, crowds swelled to the point where library officials asked for relief.
"The crowds had jammed the space," said Bob Cannon, director of Broward County's library system. "It's a mob scene. We asked the supervisor of elections to look at the problem. They rearranged the lines."
Pete Corwin, assistant to County Administrator Roger Desjarlais, said the problem at the early voting locations was not caused by a lack of voting machines, but rather a lack of laptop computers and poll workers to process the voters.
At Howard Forman Health Park in Pembroke Pines, the wait was about 2 1/2 hours by the afternoon.
Arlene Ruotolo, of Cooper City, said she requested an absentee ballot but never received it.
"I was not expecting such long lines," she said. "I went to the Hollywood courthouse this morning, and the line was even longer. I left because they were all standing in the sun."
Lori Sykes and Scott Wyman contributed to this report.