Florida elections chief: More early voting sites are needed; 'We could have done better'

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauNovember 9, 2012 

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott's top elections official acknowledged for the first time Friday that the state bears some responsibility for long lines and late vote counts that have once again made Florida a target of national ridicule following a presidential election.

"We could have done better. We will do better," Secretary of State Ken Detzner said on CNN during pointed questioning from anchor Ashleigh Banfield.

Detzner, however, twice demurred when offered a chance to say he was sorry for inconveniencing so many voters. He said the length of the ballot and record turnout of 8.4 million contributed to bottlenecks that forced people in Miami-Dade to wait seven hours to vote. He did concede that the state should have allowed counties to add more early voting sites.

"The solution is that in current Florida law, there's a limit on the number of locations that supervisors can use in early voting. We need to take a very serious look at that and open up the number of locations," Detzner said.

From author Carl Hiaasen on CBS ("a freak show") to The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, who tossed bleeped-out expletives at Florida, writers and comedians have had a field day lampooning the state's latest electoral embarrassment. The scrutiny would have been immeasurably worse if Ohio had not sealed President Barack Obama's re-election.

But it's no joke, and the most ferocious criticism is aimed squarely at Scott, the former hospital-chain CEO who repeatedly urges people to hold him accountable for his performance.

Florida elections officials Friday were still counting absentee ballots in Palm Beach County, and though Obama held a 60,000-vote edge statewide, news organizations had yet to declare Obama the winner of Florida's 29 electoral votes.

What Detzner did not say on TV was that for years, Republican legislators in Tallahassee have ignored pleas by county election supervisors to let them expand early voting to sites beyond their own offices, city halls and libraries, so crowds at each site would be smaller.

For the past three years, Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, filed bills to add flexibility to the choices of early voting sites. The 2012 version, SB 516, was shelved and never heard by a committee chaired by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, whose county had by far the longest lines and who voted with other Republicans to reduce early voting days.

"The Legislature wouldn't hear that bill," Rich said. "The governor and Republican-dominated Legislature caused this to happen, by reducing early voting days and by putting all of those constitutional amendments on the ballot."

Rich and other Democrats say the limited sites and long ballot were a sinister plot by Republicans to make it harder for Democrats to vote.

Elections are run by counties in Florida, but are governed by state law.

Scott signed into law changes in 2011 that cut early voting days from 14 to eight. As the early voting lines grew longer, he refused requests to issue an executive order adding more days. The day after the election, he said: "Let's look and see what we can improve."

In turning down a request last week by Monroe County elections chief Harry Sawyer to add additional days of early voting, Detzner said the state had no authority to do so except during a state of emergency that could risk lives or property.

Thousands of Floridians have flooded Scott's email in-box with criticism, some promising not to vote for him when he seeks re-election in 2014.

"The fact that Florida is an embarrassment yet again falls within your purview," Danielle McWilliams, a teacher in Stuart, told Scott in an email. "This is yet another reason why you should be out of office."

Paul Adams of Sarasota ridiculed Scott's choice of Detzner, a former lobbyist for the beer industry, as the state's chief elections officer.

"Your people can't get it together," Adams wrote Thursday. "Who won the election?"

CNN's Banfield, who said she spent 14 hours at Miami-area voting sites Tuesday, peppered Detzner with tough questions and demanded he explain why the state didn't anticipate the bottlenecks and expand the locations.

"We were following the law," Detzner said. "It appears as though now we need to redress the issue regarding the locations. The governor has asked me to look at that issue."

Banfield told viewers it was time for Scott to "face the music" and explain what went wrong.

As she closed her program, Friday, she spoke directly to Scott, noting that he has declined two offers to appear on the air.

"We'd really like you to join us," she said, "and answer for your state."

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