Law must change to fix state's election mess
Paula DockeryTo fix a problem, you first need to understand it.
Published: December 15, 2012
Published: December 15, 2012
After the November election, Florida was the last state to tally votes and certify results. Embarrassed, the governor, secretary of state and legislative leaders vowed to fix the problem. Both House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz committed to identify what went wrong and to remedy the situation.
The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee took up the issue. Several senators outlined how the election law changes led to the long lines and five-hour waits while others promised to hold the supervisors of elections accountable.
Florida's top election official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, recently began a "listening tour." He focused on the five counties that he isolated as being problematic. It was reported that Detzner started his tour by defending the state's newly reformed election law.
It's difficult to listen and learn when you already have your mind made up. The legislative leaders and the secretary, all Republicans, seem reluctant to blame the election changes and instead question how local officials administered them. For weeks after the election, Florida was again the butt of election jokes on late-night TV.
Supervisors of elections and many legislators warned that the changes would most likely result in voter suppression or very long lines. As it turned out, both occurred.
A reporter discovered that the general counsel of the Republican Party of Florida drafted the election reform bill. That language was not in the original bill but rather became an amendment to an innocuous bill in the budget committee, which prevented it from being debated in the Ethics and Elections Committee.
Some of the major changes — shortening the period for early voting, restricting third-party voter registration efforts and prohibiting address changes at the polls — were not properly vetted. Yet they provided enough concern for all Senate Democrats and two Republicans to vote against it, many expressing fear that it would lead to voting nightmares.
Florida has nearly 12 million registered voters. In 2008, 2.64 million of them took advantage of the 14 days of early voting, with the Sunday before election day drawing the largest turnout. In 2012, with more registered voters and fewer days of early voting, only 2.41 million voters cast their ballots in person before election day.
What ensued during the election process? The lines were long on early-voting days as well as election day, with five- to six-hour waits in many places. Long ballots with 11 constitutional amendments proposed by the Legislature contributed to slow-moving lines. Questionable lists of registered voters to be purged were produced.
The problem was not that the supervisors of elections failed in their duties.
The problem was that the Legislature failed to listen to them when crafting substantial changes and the governor failed to heed their warnings while insisting on last-minute purging of the voter rolls by relying on faulty lists. Supervisors also had to cope with new redistricting maps that were finalized late because of court challenges.
Supervisors asked for greater flexibility in the number and type of polling locations. Instead, they were given HB 1355, which imposed even more restrictions and reduced, rather than expanded, early-voting opportunities.
Rather than using the supervisors as scapegoats, the secretary, governor and Legislature need to admit their mistakes, properly define the problem and work with all parties to rectify it.
The problems are many: long lines, long waits, too few days of early voting, a shortage of voting locations, too many constitutional amendments on the ballot, last-minute voting purges, court battles and thousands of rejected absentee ballots.
The solution lies mainly in undoing HB 1355. The Legislature, at a minimum, should:
A listening tour is a fine idea, but the secretary of state should spend more time listening and less time defending the indefensible.
Paula Dockery was term-limited as a Republican state senator from Lakeland after 16 years in the Florida Legislature. She can be reached at email@example.com.