Florida back in the spotlight as ballots go missing
Four years after the "Florida fiasco", the battleground state is back in the spotlight as thousands of absentee ballots went missing and campaigners traded claims of vote rigging.
Fears of renewed electoral chaos mounted in the key battleground state this week as authorities in one of the 67 counties said they were trying to track down some 58,000 missing absentee ballots.
The Broward supervisor of elections said the ballots, about half of those requested, had been sent out but apparently not received by the voters.
"It looks like they're trying to steal the vote again," Dianne Glasser, vice chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, told AFP. By "they", she meant Governor Jeb Bush -- a brother of the US president -- and other Republicans officials.
Bush supporters, on the other hand, accuse their rivals of sending in fake voter registrations.
The battle is all the more bitter as Bush and his Democratic rival John Kerry are in a deadlock in the southeastern state.
And both sides bemoan the fact electoral authorities appear to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of people taking advantage of early voting that started on October 18 and is meant to ease the pressure on November 2.
In Palm Beach county, the focus of much of the five-week recount controversy in the last presidential, voters wait as long as three hours to cast their ballots.
Other than the long wait, poll workers and legal observers at a West Palm Beach voting office say they've noticed no irregularities. But like their counterparts in neighboring Broward county, they too field numerous questions about absentee ballot requested weeks ago but not yet received.
"There is a lot of anxiety about absentee ballots. There's an urgency," Sid Dinerstein, the county's Republican party leader, told AFP.
He said the long lines also are a problem -- he himself planned to vote early but turned back when he realized he'd have to wait for hours.
Democrats claim Florida authorities failed to plan properly for the election and did not send enough machines or poll workers.
They largely blame the governor and Secretary of State Glenda Hood, both Republicans.
"Every single decision they make favors the Republican party," said Carol Ann Loehndorf, Democratic party chairwoman for Palm Beach county, pointing out that a low turnout would favor Republicans. Democrats have more registered voters in Florida than their rivals, but Republicans tend to have a better turnout.
Touring voting offices in Palm Beach county this week, Hood shrugged off such criticism.
"I'm very impressed with the organization and people's attitudes, that they're willing to stand in line for four hours to vote," said Hood, who oversees the state elections office.
Juliette Saintelien, for one, said she was determined to make her vote count. "We need to get Bush out. I don't mind if I stay here all night," she said, earning herself smiles and nods from other Kerry supporters.
Several hundred thousand people have already cast their votes across the state, taking about 10 minutes each to fill out the ballots, which include a slew of amendments, judicial and legislative races.
Inside the West Palm Beach voting office, voters sat behind 14 voting machines, using their fingers to mark their choices.
The touch-screen machines replace the infamous punch-card system blamed for much of the problems that delayed the outcome of the 2000 election by five weeks before the US Supreme Court ended recounts.
Democrats believe the new machines could be a source of renewed electoral chaos since their failure to leave a paper trail would make a manual recount impossible.
A judge this week rejected a lawsuit demanding that printers be attached to the voting machines, which are used in 15 counties. The other 52 Florida counties use optical scan machines.
Another federal judge dismissed a demand for inclusion on the voter rolls of about 10,000 people whose registration forms were rejected because they were not properly filled out.
Republicans, for their part, claim organizations supporting Kerry have registered thousands of people who do not qualify as voters in Florida.
They also claim pro-Kerry groups have failed to hand in hundreds of forms they collected from Republicans.
"I can't tell you how many fraudulent registrations have been submitted in this state and around the country, but if it's under a million, I'd be surprised," said Dinerstein.