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Monday, Oct 20, 2014
National Politics

Fla. election officials explain problems to presidential commission


Published:

CORAL GABLES - Florida election officials told a presidential commission Friday that a reduction in early voting hours, a limited number of polling sites and a lengthy ballot led to the long lines and counting delays last November that again put the Sunshine State under national scrutiny.

Gathered at the University of Miami, Florida's secretary of state and a panel of a half-dozen county election supervisors spent hours performing a post-mortem of last year's election before a bipartisan commission charged by President Barack Obama with improving the country's electoral process.

The day-long hearing was the first of four such events in battleground states.

Miami was ground zero for Florida's voting problems: Some voters waited between five and eight hours to cast ballots.

On Friday, state election officials said problems were concentrated in a handful of urban counties, blaming a 2011 law that cut the early-voting window from 14 to eight days and no longer allowed voting on the Sunday before the election, a day when many black churches organize "souls to the polls" voter drives.

The restrictions, officials said, led to a surge in absentee and election-day voting, overwhelming some local election supervisors. In Miami-Dade County alone, voters hand-delivered some 56,000 absentee ballots in the final two days of the election, which delayed vote counting.

Supervisors said the problem was compounded by a bloated ballot jammed with 11 long questions by the Republican-dominated Legislature and designed to drive conservative voters to the polls. Penelope Townsley, supervisor of elections for Miami-Dade County, gave the commission copies of her county's 12-page ballot, eliciting visible shock from some members.

One county official recounted watching some voters take 45 minutes to an hour to read the entire ballot, contributing to long lines and delayed processing.

"Even if it's only a few precincts, there's no reason why Floridians should have to wait in line for hours to vote," said Ken Detzner, Florida's secretary of state.

Representatives from voting, labor and civil rights groups said that "time tax" disproportionately fell on minority voters. They shared the stories of residents stuck in long lines, including Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old North Miami woman who waited hours to vote. Obama hosted her at his State of the Union address this year and made her the face of electoral trouble.

Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill last month to allow supervisors of elections to restore the early voting days he and the Legislature cut in 2011.

The new law also gives local officials more options for where they can hold early voting - including convention centers, fairgrounds and senior centers - in addition to imposing a 75-word limit for ballot summaries of constitutional amendments proposed by lawmakers.

On Friday, voting, labor and civil rights advocates said the state should go further. They pressed for more training for poll workers, online voter registration and requirements for election supervisors to record waiting times at polling locations.

Ensuring voters access to the polls is critical, they said, especially after the decision by the Supreme Court this week to strike a requirement in the Voting Rights Act that certain states with a history of discrimination, including Florida, get federal approval before changing the way they hold elections.

Brenda Snipes, supervisor of elections for Broward County, said she has even consulted officials at Disney theme parks for ideas on how to cope with long lines and cut wait times.

"We don't want to continue being the butt of a joke on a Jay Leno monologue," said Alma Gonzalez, special counsel for AFSCME Florida. "We want to get this right."

The commission is set to hold hearings in Colorado, Pennsylvania and Ohio. It has until year's end to submit its recommendations to the president.

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