America - Andrew Stephen finds more cock-ups in Florida

Florida has not lost its knack for turning elections into farces: the latest involved keeping the vo

I made one vow for 11 September this year, which I kept: I would not switch on my television at all. Instead, I decided, perversely, to get on a plane - and, furthermore, to fly out of Dulles (where one of the doomed 11 September planes had taken off). My destination was Miami, where I arrived in time to witness, at first hand, the chaotic aftermath of the primary elections there - the first since electoral chaos kept the world on a knife-edge following the presidential elections in 2000.

The main contest in Florida was to choose the Democratic candidate to oppose Jeb Bush in the forthcoming November elections - between Bill Clinton's former attorney general, Janet Reno (who has been around Florida politics for four decades), and Bill McBride (a well-connected but largely unknown lawyer from Tampa). For months, opinion polls had put Reno, 64, despite her Parkinson's disease, well ahead of McBride. Unlike him, she refused to accept "soft" money - funds for campaigns raised via front organisations - which meant that she raised only $2.6m for her coffers, compared with McBride's $4.2m. She ran an old-fashioned campaign, driving around the state in a small red truck and trying to meet as many voters as possible.

But, this being America, this was not the only election: it was also to choose party candidates for the elections of dozens of state officials in November, including the likes of the agricultural commissioner. In Miami-Dade, one of 67 counties in the state, there were 13 separate referendum questions as well - the main ones being on gay rights and on a property tax for children's welfare. This immediately gave Miami-Dade a problem: it consists of 31 distinct cities and has a larger population than 16 states. Much of it, in particular Miami itself, is linguistically divided: all official electoral material had to be in English, Spanish and Creole. Voting in Miami-Dade and its neighbouring county of Broward was, therefore, a highly complicated process in the first place.

But Florida seems to have a knack of turning its elections into farces. It is an axiom of American life that elections have to be mechanised. In 2000, it was mainly the punch-card system that created the chaos, so it was abolished for 2002, with $125m spent on state-of-the-art touch-screen computers.

But problems immediately became apparent when the polls were due to open at 7am, and camera crews and photographers trailed Janet Reno as she went to cast her vote in a church hall in Kendall, a Miami suburb. "You mean I have to wait outside?" a stunned Reno protested when she discovered her local ballot station was still closed. The same was happening throughout Miami-Dade and Broward, with stations either not opening or opening too late for people to vote on their way to work. And of the state's 16.4 million people, support for Reno against McBride was heaviest in just these two counties.

Reno immediately applied for a court order - and Governor Jeb Bush declared "a state of emergency", giving him the power to order that ballot stations stay open two hours beyond their official closing time of 7pm.

Worse was to follow. Miami-Dade and Broward had acquired thousands of iVotronic touch-screen computers, but the ballots were so long in Miami-Dade that the computers all had to be reprogrammed. Staff workers were given training in June, but few fully understood the new computers. In order to make each one ready for voters, they had to insert a blue "activator" - a booting-up process that took a minimum of six minutes. Special audio booths for the visually impaired took a minimum of 28 minutes. Poll-workers were told to turn up at 6am ready for the polls to open at 7am - but as a station might have an average of 10-12 iVotronics and two audio booths, the planners should have guessed that they'd have trouble getting most of the ballot stations up and running by 7am.

Following each vote, a blue activator had to be inserted to record the vote and have the computer ready for the next voter. A green activator could be used to demonstrate the touch-screen system to voters who were confused. Finally, a yellow activator was required to handle the final shutdown of all the iVotronics. The result of all this was a complete fiasco, with some iVotronics being switched off incorrectly so that they recorded nil votes in precincts of thousands. At 7pm, the pre-programmed iVotronics asked: "Do you want to shut down?" Many polls workers, ignoring the governor's orders, did just that - further disenfranchising voters.

Initial tallies put McBride ahead of Reno by 8,196, but further recounts of the iVotronics gave Reno another 3,402 - a margin of less than 0.5 per cent. It will never be known whether Reno in reality won the election; she decided to be a good Democrat and not mount a legal challenge against the outcome. That's politics, Florida style.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The Reckoning