There it was, the awkward protrusion, screwing it up again. A national embarrassment dangling from the bottom of the electoral map. The pitiful punch line of a tired joke.
Election Day 2012 went fairly smoothly nationwide. The presidential race was wrapped up early enough for a comfortable bedtime.
But not in Florida. Votes were still being counted into the weekend. Days after other states had chosen either red or blue, the Sunshine State hung below the nation, a curiosity without much consequence.
Florida was immediately seized upon across the late-night television circuit. It made for material that required almost no set-up. Conan, Letterman, Leno et al. had a field day.
“Florida tonight remains too close to call,” Jon Stewart started it off after the presidential election had been called. “The election was decided without them. For once, Florida’s cluster#$%@ is irrelevant.”
Florida is becoming reliable election-time fodder. Forever shaking the presidential-election nightmare of 2000, it’s gaining a national reputation as the state that just can’t get it right.
“Being the brunt of late-night comedy hour is not an image this state can allow to continue,” said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.
Macnab is not amused by the late-night jokes. She’s even less amused by Florida’s inability to pull off an election without raising concerns about the state’s overall election system.
In the wake of the 2012 election, groups such as the League of Women Voters have pushed for an examination into why Florida had such difficulties and what can be done to avoid those problems in the future. The governor and state lawmakers have also expressed a desire to, as President Barack Obama said in his victory speech as Florida struggled through election night, “fix that.”
“If it had come down to Florida it would have been catastrophic,” Macnab said. “As it was, it became an afterthought and an object of ridicule for late-night talk shows—that’s not good enough for Florida.”
The Punch Line
Northwest Florida was barely in on the joke. Escambia County was particularly quiet, uneventfully delivering its reliably red returns.
“There are some counties you never hear from,” said Florida’s former secretary of state Kurt Browning. “Escambia County is one of these counties. David Stafford does a great job.”
Midmorning on Election Day, Escambia’s polling places were humming along nicely. While lines had started off long when the sites opened their doors, headaches were dissolving as the day headed toward lunch.
At Precinct 34, Henry East, an Escambia elections deputy, warmly greeted voters as they entered the polling place. He wore a purple suit and leopard hatband and talked about working the polls as an 18-year-old in Chicago. The older man said everything had run smoothly throughout the morning at the Panhandle precinct.
“Thank you for your vote,” East said to an exiting voter. “Your sins are forgiven.”
Over in Santa Rosa County, voter Courtney Rogers had shown up early on Election Day. Her Gulf Breeze polling place—Precinct 22, the South Santa Rosa Recreation Center—was just opening and already there was a problem.
“I understand, things happen,” Rogers said.
After checking in and filling out her ballot, Rogers went to cast her vote. The scanner, however, wasn’t accepting ballots.
“That part was all taped up,” she recalled. “Underneath there was a little box that said ‘put your ballot in here.’”
Santa Rosa County Supervisor of Elections Ann Bodenstein has been in the business for quite a while. She’s been around a lot longer than the scanners that malfunctioned at Precinct 22.
“I’ve been in elections over 50 years,” Bodenstein said. “I go back to the time of the machines with the curtains that closed behind you, with the little red lever.”
On Nov. 6, the machines in Santa Rosa were on the fritz from the start. A write-in candidate opposing Rep. Clay Ford was apparently throwing them for a loop.
Bodenstein said that state election officials were contacted immediately. The local crew was guided through the breakdown.
“When they told us what to do it went beautifully,” the supervisor said. “It wasn’t anything that you did. It was just the machines couldn’t work like they said.”
With its malfunctioning machines and notably late returns, Santa Rosa County did not see as seamless of an Election Day as Escambia County. Compared to the southern part of the state, however, it ran like clockwork.
“It’s certainly not perfect,” Escambia County Supervisor of Elections David Stafford said of Florida’s election system. “We’ve all seen the images of the lines in the other parts of the state.”
In certain areas of Florida, voters waited more than seven hours to cast their ballots. Some were still waiting when the presidential election was called for Barack Obama.
Problems were particularly bad in the southern part of the state. Still waiting for Florida to finalize its vote a couple of days after the election, Miami Herald political writer Marc Caputo outlined some of the issues for Judy Woodruff on PBS’s “NewsHour.”
“There weren’t enough machines to read ballots and there weren’t actually enough privacy booths to vote your ballot,” Caputo told her. “This year, we also had an unusually long ballot, which slowed people down as well.”
By the time President Obama gave his victory speech, it was apparent there were major issues in Florida. In his opening remarks he nodded to the long lines and wait times found at some polling places.
“By the way, we have to fix that,” the President said.
The Election Day snafu in Florida wasn’t completely unforeseeable. The entire election year of 2012, in fact, had issues.
Throughout the year, Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature fought criticisms that laws passed in 2011 were damaging to the democratic process. In addition to voter roll purges and measures that complicated voter registration efforts, the new law cut early voting from 14 days to eight, with the Sunday prior to the election also being dropped.
Two days prior to the November election, the Florida Democratic Party filed a federal lawsuit in an effort to force the state government to extend early voting hours in South Florida. Joined by the League of Women Voters, the group had asked the governor to extend early voting due to “inadequate polling facilities” and the expectation of a large turnout on Election Day.
“Because of Governor Scott’s refusal to follow precedent and extend early voting hours in the face of unprecedented voter turnout in South Florida, we are requesting in federal court that more Floridians have a meaningful chance to early vote,” Rod Smith, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, said in a statement when the lawsuit was filed.
Throughout 2012, Florida’s Republican-heavy state government showed little sympathy to groups expressing concerns with the election process. Critics maintained that officials were systematically making it more difficult for certain reliably Democratic voters—minorities, students and the elderly—to cast their ballots.
“People in Tallahassee don’t just sit around and think, ‘What can I pass today,’” Rosemary Hays-Thomas, co-president of the Pensacola Bay Area League of Women Voters, said in January. “There is a purpose.”
Hilary Shelton, the senior vice president of advocacy and policy for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, tended to agree: “We used to call it Jim Crow, but now it’s much more sophisticated, much more high-tech.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) held a federal field hearing in Tampa in order to determine if Florida’s new law was disenfranchising anyone. In particular, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights wanted to know if the Voter Rights Act was being violated.
“We’re here to examine, among other things, how one of these elections laws made its way through the Florida Legislature and was quickly signed by the governor—despite widespread public outcry,” Nelson said in a statement, wondering if there was “an orchestrated effort to suppress the vote.”
The critics had fair ammunition. As University of Florida political science professor pointed out at the time: in the 2008 general election, African-Americans composed only 13 percent of the total votes in this battleground state, but accounted for 31 percent of the votes cast on the Sunday prior to Election Day. Hispanics showed similar numbers.
In the Florida House of Representatives, Rep. Mark Pafford (D-West Palm Beach) introduced legislation that would have reversed the more controversial aspects of the state’s new election law. In the senate, Minority Leader Nan Rich (D-Weston) did the same.
“I’ve got no signal whatsoever that it’ll even get heard,” Pafford said of his efforts at the time.
While some of Florida’s H.B. 1355 didn’t withstand judicial challenges—new requirements on third-party voter registration were found to be over the top—the reduction in the number of early voting days stood.
On Election Day, certain pockets of the state saw voters wait hours at their polling place. Pockets like Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties—home to 32 percent of Florida’s Democrats.
Macnab felt like she knew who was to blame. The Nov. 6 mess had played out just about the way groups such as the League and the Florida Democratic Party said it would. It appeared to be the logical—and predicted—conclusion to a legislative reworking of the system.
“At the end of the day,” the League’s president said, “you have to look at your leaders.”
Dissecting the Joke
Former Florida secretary of state Browning resigned after the presidential primary earlier this year. Citing the desire to return home to family, he was in the middle of scouring the state’s voter database for illegal immigrants at the request of—and apparently at odds with—the governor.
Browning returned to Pasco County where his trip to the polls to cast his vote this month was as effortless as his landslide victory in the local superintendent of schools race. His tip: be prepared with your sample ballot.
“When I went to vote, I was in and out in ten minutes,” he said. “I knew what I was going to be doing.”
Before Browning was first appointed secretary of state in 2006, he served 26 years as Pasco County’s supervisor of elections, spending time as president of the state association of supervisors. In the wake of Florida’s 2000 election meltdown, then-Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him to his Task Force on Election Procedures, Standards and Technology.
As secretary of state, Browning oversaw the 2008 presidential election.
“In my humble opinion,” he said, “we hit it out of the park.”
Browning feels that the states election system is “probably one of the best in the country” due to changes made as a result of the 2000 task force. While he sees some problems with this year’s election, he doesn’t blame the new election law, which he repeatedly went to bat for as secretary of state.
“Everybody’s screaming about early voting, I don’t think we need to touch early voting. I do not think it played a part,” Browning said, pointing out that the cuts to early voting were in days, as opposed to hours. “When I do math, 96 is 96, whether you spend it over eight days or 14, it’s still 96 hours.”
The people screaming about early voting cuts, and Florida’s Election Day scene in general, included groups like the League and the American Association of Retired People (AARP). They held a press conference as the Election Day smoke cleared and asked that state officials form a task force to examine the issue.
“A week ago today, Florida voters saw the culmination of a general election process that can be summarized in one word: Unacceptable,” Macnab said at the press conference. “We must put Florida’s shameful election disasters behind us. We ask that this task force begin its work quickly and deliver its final recommendations to the 2013 Legislature at least two weeks before the 2013 session begins, allowing time for bills to be filled.”
On Nov. 14, Gov. Scott announced that he was directing Secretary of State Ken Detzner to meet with county elections supervisors in an effort to determine how the state could better handle the process next time around. He also encouraged state legislators to have a “bipartisan, open and vigorous discussion about what changes may need to be made to current Florida election law in the upcoming session.”
“We need to make improvements in our election process,” Scott said is a statement. “If even one Floridian has lost confidence in our voting process, we need to do whatever we can to make sure that confidence is restored.”
One of the supervisors of elections that Detzner met with was Escambia’s Stafford. The local supervisor recently wrapped up his term as president of the state association.
“It was a very, kind of, preliminary meeting,” Stafford said.
The Escambia supervisor said that some of the concerns that he discussed with the secretary of state included the number of available polling places and the length of the ballot.
“And the truncated schedule is something that should be looked at as well,” Stafford said.
The size of the ballot—filled with “long, lengthy amendments on there that nobody understands”—was also a prime concern of Browning’s. He pointed to counties in the southern part of the state with particularly long ballots.
“They had like seven or eight pages—I mean, c’mon,” Browning said, explaining that the ballots not only took longer to fill out, but also to process. “Those eight pages have to be fed in. When you feed your ballot into the scanner it doesn’t just go ‘zip,’ it ‘reads’ it.”
The former supervisor didn’t have to deal with such a longwinded ballot during the 2008 election.
“It was substantially shorter,” he said. “I can tell you Miami-Dade didn’t have eight pages.”
Whereas former Gov. Bush’s task force addressed what Browning called “some pretty, I think, severe issues,” the former secretary of state and county elections supervisor sees this year’s election issues as more localized problems, or “what I call people issues.”
“You know, I think the issues that we found this year are probably more human issues than process or procedure,” Browning said, predicting the prescribed remedies won’t be as “dramatic” as the ones recommended by the 2000 task force.
The former official said much of Florida’s problem could be sidestepped if Election Day logistics were better handled at the local level.
“This is not Earth-shattering, exacting work,” he said, suggesting more resources be put into the process. “It is time consuming, and you have to be accurate. Just put more people on it.”
Following the governor’s statement about possible issues with Florida’s election process, Macnab didn’t sound entirely encouraged.
“We find the idea of his delegating the job to the secretary of state inadequate,” the League president deadpanned.
Macnab maintained that a task force made up of “bipartisan, state names who are trusted” could better investigate the issue. A task force much like Bush’s in 2000 that Browning sat on.
“That was very helpful, that was the right approach,” she said, explaining that she didn’t trust the same body of officials that fought for the state’s new election law to appropriately untangle the mess.
Though Browning doesn’t see as large of issues as the state tackled after the 2000 election, the former secretary said he could see a task force being useful.
“It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for a task force, a work group to be set up,” Browning said. “I mean, self reflection is always good.”
Governor Scott has yet to indicate any such task force will be formed. Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, meanwhile, is currently trying to drum up interest in precisely such a task force.
“Clearly, this past election has shown there’s still more work to be done,” she said.
In addition to serving as the mayor of Tampa, Iorio also spent three terms as supervisor of elections in Hillsborough County and is a past president of the state association. She is working to put together a group to study the state’s election issues and make recommendations to the legislature.
“People across party lines are concerned,” Iorio said, adding that she doesn’t feel Scott’s attention to the issue will suffice. “That just doesn’t go far enough. There needs to be different voices.”
State legislators are also talking about Florida’s Election Day headaches. Both Republicans and Democrats have said they will address concerns.
House Speaker Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Hill) has said that a house committee, as opposed to an outside task force, can best study the issues. Both he and Senate President Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) do, however, seem to be heading into this next legislative session with a mellower disposition than the full-speed-ahead GOP-led body that muscled HB 1355 through.
“This isn’t a third-world country,” Gaetz said during his swearing in speech as he ascended to the senate presidency this month. “America shouldn’t have to wait for five days after the polls close to find out how Florida voted.”
Democratic lawmakers are sponsoring legislation that aims to reverse Florida’s new election law. The left’s legislation sponsored by Rep Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg) and newly elected Sen. Darren Soto (D-Orlando)—with cameo support from former governor Charlie Crist—would restore early voting to 14 days and also address ballot length.
Browning suggested that Florida could try something entirely new.
“Maybe what we ought to do is just start with a clean sheet of paper: How do we want to work this?” he posed.
The former secretary said perhaps the state could limit polling places to larger “mega-sites” that could facilitate any voter regardless of precinct. The sites could remain open five to 10 days prior to Election Day.
“Basically, you have this big early voting that becomes Election Day,” Browning said. “I don’t know what else to do.”
Macnab said she hopes the state gets it figured out before the next election. And further, that Florida takes a breath and finds a better way before heading full throttle into another national embarrassment.
“I don’t think there’s any one problem, or solution,” she cautioned.
Impact of New Laws on Early Voting
Source: Florida Secretary of State
2008: 2,661,672 voters
2012: 2,412,408 voters
Decrease: 9 percent
(most EV in the state in 2008)
Decrease: 28 percent
Decrease: 13 percent
Decrease: 14 percent