Florida voters will have long ballots to complete on Election Day

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauSeptember 11, 2012 

TALLAHASSEE -- Brace yourselves, Florida voters: The election ballot you'll see this fall is longer than ever.

It's so long that voters will have to fill out multiple sheets with races on both sides, then feed those multiple pages through ballot scanners, one page at a time.

It's a pocketbook issue, too: Some people who vote by mail will have to dig deeper and pay at least 65 cents postage and up to $1.50 to return their multi-page ballots in heavier envelopes.

More than ever, county election supervisors say, people should vote early or request an absentee ballot to avoid predicted bottlenecks at the polls on Election Day, Nov. 6.

"This is the longest ballot I can remember," said Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark. "The voter who sees this ballot the first time may need smelling salts."

"It's the biggest one we've ever had," said Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Bob Sweat, who has supervised local elections for close to three decades.

The Manatee County ballot, usually 8.5 by 11 inches, this time will be supersized at 8.5 by 18 inches, and will cost $1.30 to mail back for those who vote via absentee ballot, Sweat said Monday.

The ballot will be chock full of choices, for president, U.S. Senate, Congress, the state Legislature, county offices and merit retention for judges, all the way down to city and county referendums.

But what may prompt some voters to rub their eyes in disbelief is the Florida Legislature's decision to place 11 proposed changes to the Constitution on the ballot, some of which appear in their entirety.

"They have really creat

ed a monster," said Monroe County Supervisor of Elections Harry Sawyer Jr. in Key West.

Four amendments run on for hundreds of words, and are full of legalese such as this, on Amendment No. 5, dealing with the court system: "If the Legislature determines that a rule has been readopted and repeals the readopted rule, this proposed revision prohibits the court from further readopting the repealed rule without the Legislature's prior approval."

The ballot may result in long lines at the polls, warned Rosalie Shaffer, president of the League of Women Voters of Manatee County.

"I'm concerned that many people will decide on election day not to wait, and forego voting, which would be a shame," she said. "This was not a good year for the legislature to cut back on early voting days."

The Legislature has long criticized the Florida Supreme Court for rejecting some of its proposed amendments as misleading, which some Republican lawmakers view as an overreach by the judiciary.

In 2000, the court retroactively struck down a 1998 constitutional amendment on the death penalty, calling the ballot summary incomplete and misleading.

The court said legislators misled voters by replacing the term "cruel or unusual punishment" with "cruel and unusual punishment," which it said was a "radical change" not explained to voters, 73 percent of whom approved the amendment.

As a result, the Legislature exempted itself from the 75-word limit that applies to citizen-sponsored ballot initiatives.

"It's an effort by the Legislature, the body closest to the people, to ensure that voters have the right to vote on these amendments," said Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity.

Corcoran said most voters will do their homework and know the amendments before they vote. But some election supervisors aren't so sure.

"To understand these full-text amendments, you almost have to be a Harvard lawyer," said Sharon Harrington, the Lee County elections supervisor in Fort Myers.

With all that verbiage, election supervisors predict a higher than usual rate of "drop-off," as voters overlook state ballot questions altogether. If they do, they also may skip city or county ballot questions listed below the state questions.

"There is such a thing as voter fatigue," Clark says. "You have that with any long ballot."

Sweat is recommending that people use absentee ballots because of the length of the constitutional amendment proposals.

"It would be a lot easier," he said. "It'll take you 22-25 minutes just to read them, whether you understand them or not."

He emphasized that every absentee ballot in Manatee County is tracked from when it goes out to the voter to when it comes back to the office, and every one is counted.

In order to avoid long lines on election day, voters may also vote early, from Oct. 27-Nov. 3, he said.

Those who want to register to vote may do so until 5 p.m. Oct. 9, Sweat said.

If you vote in person, you must present a picture identification and a signature, such as a driver's license, a passport or a student ID, said Sweat.

Another factor making the ballot longer is a federal requirement that 13 counties must print ballots in English and Spanish because of their voting populations. The state's two largest counties, Miami-Dade and Broward, must print ballots in Creole as well as English and Spanish.

So many ballot pages means more work for those box-shaped optical scan machines that "read" the results. That has elections officials bracing for another problem.

The boxes below those scanners can only hold so many pages, and they will have to be replaced a lot more frequently than usual.

"We're going to have to stop periodically throughout the day and empty those bins and seal them," said Harrington of Lee County. "It may hold up some people at the polls for a little while."

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