Will election problems lead to changes in Florida?
Published: Sunday, November 11, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 9:30 p.m.
After an election marred by early voting lines that took hours to navigate and a final vote count that wasn't settled until Saturday, Florida must decide what changes — if any — it will make in its election policies.
The Republican-controlled Legislature this year shortened early voting to eight days, down from 14 days in 2008. Many disparaged the move as an attempt to depress Democratic and minority turnout, since Democratic and typically left-leaning minority voters historically have taken greater advantage of early voting than Republicans.
“It was a designed fail, and it went perfectly according to schedule,” said Dan Smith, a University of Florida political science professor. “But changing the rules of the game wasn't quite enough to tip the scales for Mitt Romney.”
Florida's electoral votes, although unnecessary in securing President Barack Obama's re-election Tuesday, were won by the president, state elections officials announced on Saturday. The president received 50 percent of the Florida vote to 49.1 percent for Romney, a difference of about 74,000 votes.
As the nation's largest swing state, Florida and its 29 electoral votes ultimately proved inconsequential in this election. But both presidential candidates hammered the state with advertising in case it became a deciding factor in what many expected to be a tight election.
Smith also cited a recent change in state statute that requires voters who change their addresses to a different county on Election Day to vote a provisional ballot rather than a regular ballot as a move that hurt voters.
Voters had until 5 p.m. Thursday to provide supporting documents to validate their provisional ballots, and Alachua County's ballots were still being counted Friday, Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Pam Carpenter said.
About 14,000 fewer voters voted early in Alachua County than in 2008, even though voters had 96 hours to vote early in both elections, she said.
“It just seems to indicate that more days provide better access to early voting for the voters than just the same amount of hours,” Carpenter said of the drop in turnout.
Having more days of early voting appears, at least in Alachua County, to lead to more voters casting ballots early. That takes pressure off polling places and shortens the lines on Election Day, she said.
The lines were longer than usual in Alachua County on the morning of Election Day, but later in the day, there were few lines. Some voters were redirected to different precincts because of last-minute address changes, which is especially common in presidential elections as younger voters turn out for the first time, Carpenter said.
She said she will meet with poll workers over the next month to learn about any problems they had during the election. She said she's especially interested in hearing from those who worked in the new districts created by Florida's latest redistricting process.
Carpenter believes that more flexibility in choosing early voting locations, which she said have been limited by state statute to supervisor of elections offices, municipal halls and public libraries since early voting was established in Florida in 2004, might be helpful. With wider options, they could select locations that can accommodate more voters.
Election Day turnout in the county actually increased by 4,000 voters in 2012 compared with 2008, while absentee ballot returns jumped from about 23,000 in 2008 to about 26,800 in 2012. Early voting was the only ballot-casting option that dipped.
Stafford Jones, chairman of the Alachua County Republican Party, said he supports the shortened early voting period because it lowers costs for campaigns with fewer voting days in which to devote hyper-focused efforts on turning out supporters and winning over undecided voters.
“The longer you extend voting, the more expensive it becomes for campaigns and elections supervisors and so forth,” he said. “And it's just kind of bizarre to me that some Democrats have talked about lessening the impact of money in elections, yet early voting is one of the things that overall makes elections more expensive for campaigns.”
Some early voters in Florida waited in line for hours this year, especially on the final day of early voting, Nov. 3.
A high number of minority voters waited in those lines to vote early, Smith said. His research paper on early voting in Florida in 2012, written with Michael Herron, stated that black voters cast a disproportionate number of the votes cast in early voting that extended into the early morning of Nov. 4 in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. Voters waited past midnight to vote after lines closed at 7 p.m.
“If you had long lines across the state, that would be one thing,” he said. “But they were disproportionately in African-American communities. That is evidence of voter suppression.”
Rod Smith, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, said he thought the groups that the shortened early voting period was expected to hurt the most — minority and Democratic voters — might have actually overperformed.
He said he expects early voting to be lengthened again in the future. Diminishing the early voting period might give Republicans a political advantage, but it isn't the right thing to do, he said.
“Whether you are a Republican, Democrat or independent, you should not have to stand in a six-hour line to vote,” he said.
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or email@example.com.