Obama, others push for an overhaul of Florida's elections system after long waits

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauNovember 8, 2012 

Obama, others push for an overhaul of Florida's elections system after long waits

TALLAHASSEE — The lines to vote in Florida were so long that President Barack Obama took time at the start of his re-election speech early Wednesday morning to point it out.

"By the way, we need to fix that," Obama said.

It's not as if we didn't know that. As in 2000, Florida gained national attention on Election Day for holding up the final tally of votes in a tight presidential race. Long lines, tardy results, apologetic elections officials — this is how it's done in the Sunshine State.

"I'm hesitant to say what went wrong," said Daniel Tokaji, a law professor and elections expert at Ohio State University. "But the president is right, we do need to fix this. In the long run, this will dampen turnout if it takes this long to vote."

When asked about Obama's comments, Gov. Rick Scott said he was open to suggestions.

"One thing I think we always ought to be doing is always look at when we finish something and say, 'What can we improve?' " Scott told reporters Wednesday. "So I'll be sitting down with the secretary of state's office to look at the things that we can improve. But here's the positive, we had a lot of people to go out and vote. We had 4.4 million vote either absentee or early voting. That's great. We had unbelievable interest in our Election Day. So I think all those are positive."

Scott can start in Fort Myers, where Lee County Supervisor of Elections Sharon Harrington broke into tears as she apologized for the delays, which she blamed on an exceptionally long ballot. Orange and Broward experienced long delays, too, but the lines were longest in Miami-Dade, where at least 80 precincts still had lines four hours after polls closed at 7 p.m.

The last ballots of the 2012 election were cast in Miami-Dade shortly after 1 a.m. Wednesday, more than six hours after the polls closed.

Republican strategist John Weaver, a senior adviser to John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, posted on Twitter: "I've been an election observer in places that NEVER had Democracy before who seem to have the concept down better than party of Florida."

What happened in Miami-Dade was a "localized" problem, officials said, and not the result of changes the Legislature made to the early voting schedule.

"We had a huge early voting turnout," said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, the incoming House speaker. "We have made voting as easy as it's ever been in the state of Florida, and despite what some critics are saying, I think we've done a good job."

The Republican-controlled Legislature compressed the early voting timetable from 14 days to eight, but still allowed a maximum of 96 hours. The difference is, it was over fewer days.

County election supervisors — the people who run elections — did not request the truncated time schedule. In fact, the supervisors asked for, and were denied, the right to expand the number of early voting sites to include other government buildings, clubhouses and community centers. By law, early voting can only be held in election offices, libraries and city halls.

"It would be great if I could rent a Circuit City and use it for early voting, but I can't," said Craig Latimer, Hillsborough's newly elected supervisor. "It almost seems the law prohibits you from opening early voting sites."

Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida, said he has no doubt that Republicans contracted the days of early voting from 14 to eight in an effort to suppress Democratic turnout.

"By shortening the number of available days, you have compressed an increasingly popular form of voting into less time," Smith said. "To me it was a structural change that had a desired outcome, which was long lines for early voting. The mobilization efforts to get out the vote by the Obama campaign was able to supercede those plans. The barriers just weren't quite high enough."

The delays came in a year in which there were fewer precincts to vote. There were a total of 6,076 precincts in Florida, 851 fewer than in the 2008 election.

"If you shrink the number of precincts, you're going to have more people going to sign in and that's going to take longer," Tokaji said. "That could have been a factor. These are the kinds of things that people like me will be studying for weeks and years."

Closing precincts is a local decision and not controlled by Scott and the Legislature, Department of State spokesman Chris Cate said.

The correlation between lines and precincts is unclear, however. While Lee County saw longer lines in 46 fewer precincts than four years ago, Miami-Dade made the world wait for its tally despite having 41 more precincts than in 2008.

Despite the wait, many voters said they felt inspired by the experience.

Maggie Garcia came out of South Kendall Community Church at 11:40 p.m. after voting for Mitt Romney. Although she waited in line for four hours and heard that Obama had already been projected as the winner by major networks, she came out with a smile on her face.

"I don't regret waiting; it's every four years so it's worth it," she said. "That's why we're here."

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