By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
A new report from the Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF) shines light on a factor in Florida elections that created some problems at the polls during the 2012 presidential election: county-level election administrators.
According to the report, “Florida’s Worst Election Offenders,” the voting experience and voting process in Florida varied by county. “Because the administration of elections is largely delegated to officials in the more than 3,000 counties or wards in the United States, a citizen’s voting experience can vary even within a state,” the report notes. “From the ease of voter registration, to the maintenance of voter lists, to the number of voting machines, many county-based factors affect voters’ overall experience and their access to the ballot box.”
Problems from county to county were compounded by some statewide election changes. In 2012, county election supervisors were already facing new voting law (HB 1355) that was passed by the GOP-led Florida Legislature. Many voting experts said the provisions in the new law—including shortened early voting hours and restrictions on voter registration—made it harder to vote in the state. On top of that state officials launched an unprecedented and error-ridden non-citizen voter purge a couple of months before the election.
But as the report said, these weren’t the only factors that influenced whether it was easier or harder for voters in Florida to cast their ballots during the last presidential election. According to the CAPAF report:
In addition to facing restrictive voting laws and a controversial voter purge, Florida voters had to deal with long lines at the polls on Election Day. Voters in 35 precincts in Lee County were still in line waiting to vote three hours after polling locations had officially closed. Meanwhile, reports from Miami-Dade County indicated that some voters in the county had to wait in line for seven hours to vote on Election Day. One study found that Florida voters faced the longest lines to vote in the nation.
Many counties in Florida also experienced election administration issues. In Hillsborough County, for example, poor administration appears to have erroneously forced some of the county’s voters to vote provisionally; after all the votes were tabulated in the county, more than 2,100 provisional ballots were tossed out. In Palm Beach County, a printing debacle delayed the completion of counting absentee ballots until four days after the election.
Because of Florida’s history of election problems and the multitude of problems that voters encountered during the 2012 general election, we went deeper to gain a better understanding of what happened in the state during the election. We examined concrete data that reflected voters’ experiences in the voting system and their ability to participate in the democratic process. Since many election decisions are delegated to county administrators, we wanted to examine how voting experiences varied from county to county and identify the counties that stood out for poor election administration.
Aside from the new rules—some of which were halted by courts before the election—experts said a lengthy ballot in Florida also slowed down lines and created historic wait-times all over the state.
The 2012 Florida ballot had 11 proposed constitutional amendments that were put there by state lawmakers. All of the measures were printed in full—even a ballot measure that had more than 600 words. The result was a ballot that topped out to 10 to 12 pages in counties like Miami-Dade. Issues like this just exacerbated administrative issues, the report notes. According to the CAPAF report:
In addition to shortened early voting days and lengthy ballots, there is evidence that some county election officials were not adequately prepared to handle the high voter turnout, did not allocate resources properly, or may simply be incompetent at their jobs.
Although The Miami Herald reported that election officials in Miami-Dade County believed they had enough ballot scanners, voting booths, and poll workers to deal with the crowds, a lack of resources seemed to pose a problem in the county. “At Centennial Middle School in Cutler Bay, 1,786 voters cast ballots at a site with just five scanner machines—one of the highest voter-to-machine ratios in the county, records show.”
Meanwhile, “at the Country Walk Park Recreation Center, 1,892 voters flooded a site with 32 booths and seven ballot scanners, causing waits as long as seven hours.”
Poor planning and incompetent management appeared to plague Lee County, where some voters had to wait in line for five hours to vote. County Election Supervisor Sharon Harrington claimed that no one could have prepared for the issues that led to long lines on Election Day, blaming long ballots and a shortage of ballot scanners for some of the problems.
The county election office, however, had actually returned more than $1 million to the county in 2010 and 2011—money that the office could have used to buy extra scanners. Harrington also failed to use 50 extra ballot scanners that the county had on Election Day.
Lastly, Harrington could have sought permission from the state for ways to consolidate the ballot, but she did not even know there was an option to do so. In contrast to Miami-Dade County election officials and Lee County Election Supervisor Harrington, the election officials in Collier County planned ahead for the election. In anticipation of long ballots, the county purchased extra ballot scanners to contend with the long ballots, dispatching more ballot scanners in 2012 than it did in any other election.Collier County even sought permission from the state to consolidate its ballot. Thus, while voters in Lee had to face, on average, a 115-minute wait at the polls, voters in Collier faced, on average, only an 8-minute wait at the polls.
State lawmakers passed a bill this year that reversed many of the changes to election law in 2010 that made voting more difficult in 2012. State officials, however, are taking yet another stab at the non-citizen voter purge.
Lee County Election Supervisor Sharon Harrington is now part of a presidential task force looking at ways to improve election procedures all over the country.