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Once Again, Florida's Voting Doesn't Add Up

Posted: November 8, 2012

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The election problems in Florida that kept the nation waiting more than a month for the outcome of the presidential race back in 2000 have largely been resolved. But the state has come up with a whole new set of difficulties that led to long lines and another slow count.

A Miami-Dade Elections Department employee tallies absentee ballot reports in Doral, Fla., on Thursday.

A Miami-Dade Elections Department employee tallies absentee ballot reports in Doral, Fla., on Thursday. Alan Diaz

Florida is again having problems determining the winner of its presidential vote. But its difficulties are entirely different from the ones that kept the nation in suspense for more than a month back in 2000.

"It was just a convergence of things that were an embarrassment to Florida," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Some of the snafus stem from changes in election law that were passed last year — but which were the subject of lawsuits until just weeks before the election. "We'd been in court for months," MacManus says.

From there the problems cascaded down on Florida, with its immense and highly diverse voting population, to the point that some voters didn't cast their ballots until 1 a.m. Polls had officially closed at 7, but those who were in line at the time were allowed to stay and vote.

The legal fights over early voting in particular made it difficult for local election officials to plan properly for heavy turnout. The number of early voting hours stayed constant at 96, but the number of days on which early voting could be held was reduced to eight.

Longer voting days meant paying overtime to poll workers, so some counties opened up fewer locations, which resulted in long lines.

"Souls to the polls" turnout efforts, which involve African-American churches busing parishioners to cast ballots on the Sunday before Election Day, had to be curtailed as early voting was no longer available on that day.

In response to such changes, Democrats encouraged supporters to take advantage of in-person absentee voting. Voters could show up at election offices as late as Monday to ask for an absentee ballot, which they would fill out on the spot.

"The Obama team shifted to get people to do in-person absentee ballots, which take a lot longer to process than early voting," says Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida. "You have to open and verify and process the ballot, rather than immediately scanning it."

Absentee ballots have to be certified individually before going into the machines to be tallied, notes NPR's Greg Allen. Miami-Dade County, for instance, had to cope with a late influx of 54,000 absentee ballots, and the county just finished counting votes on Thursday.

Smith accuses Republicans, who dominate the state's Legislature and hold the governorship, of deliberately making voting more difficult and making it impossible for local officials to conduct elections in a timely and efficient manner.

"When our voting laws are being used for partisan manipulation, that is unacceptable and un-American," says Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

Republicans deny that they attempted in any way to suppress the vote. Gov. Rick Scott noted that more than 4 million people took advantage of early voting this year.

"We had a huge early turnout," Will Weatherford, the incoming Republican House speaker, told the Tampa Bay Times. "We have made voting as easy as it's ever been in the state of Florida."

There were other factors that contributed to the long lines and consequent slow count. For one thing, Florida had an exceptionally long ballot, with 11 complicated constitutional amendments. One question was 700 words long. And in some voter precincts, the ballots had to be presented in multiple languages.

Flipping through 10 or 12 pages made navigating the ballot more time consuming for voters. But first they had to find the correct place to vote; that was difficult for some.

Redistricting and changes in polling locations meant many voters showed up at the wrong place. Thanks to last year's election law changes, some had to cast provisional ballots if they had moved to a new county, which had not previously been the case.

Given the state's large and highly mobile population, it was difficult for election officials in some locations to plan properly to provide adequate polling places or voting machines.

"The housing bust hurt Florida badly," says David Kimball, an expert on elections at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. "There are places in Florida that were booming that have half the population they did four years ago. That makes it difficult for election officials to plan."

For all that, Kimball says, Florida's voting problems might not be notably worse than those in other states. That was the case, despite Florida's notoriety, 12 years ago. Election officials in other states back then noted happily that the focus on Florida diverted attention from their own problems.

"In many other states, if we took a close look at their system and put it under stress with a highly competitive presidential election, they would look as bad," Kimball says.

Following the 2000 recount, Florida, like other states, made numerous changes to its election law and procedures. Poor ballot layout and antiquated voting machines that brought the phrase "hanging chad" into the national lexicon are no longer factors.

But the influx of federal funds that helped resolve many voting issues around the country may not be repeated, despite President Obama's call during his victory speech to "fix" the latest set of problems.

State and local governments, which have made underfunding election mechanisms a tradition, have left them more strapped than usual, due to their ongoing budget problems.

Concerns about voting problems tend to go into hibernation for two to four years. "There are natural constituencies that defend teacher pensions and health care, but there's no natural constituency for democracy," says Kimball, of the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

Even if money is found, there's no off-the-shelf solution that would make voting and counting run smoother — and has universal support.

A decade ago, Florida and other states were able to enact election changes on a bipartisan basis.

That dynamic no longer holds — certainly not in Florida, where Republicans have pushed changes through firm control of Tallahassee, and Democrats have turned to the courts to challenge their every move.

"Each side is suspicious of the other," says MacManus, the University of South Florida professor. "The battles are all partisan-oriented."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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