TALLAHASSEE — Balloting mishaps, confusion and alleged voter fraud won't mean much in the post-election analysis if Tuesday's presidential election isn't close and Florida doesn't matter.
But with polls indicating a tight race between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the slightest glitch — be it a jammed optical scanner in North Miami or a spike in provisional ballots in Gainesville — could be memorialized as this campaign's hanging chad.
"In close races, an entire state's elections process goes under the microscope," said Ed Foley, an Ohio State University law professor and elections expert. "With that type of scrutiny, things always turn up."
Here are five issues that could grab the national spotlight by the time official results are certified.
1 Long ballots. There are 11 constitutional amendments on this year's ballot, making it the longest in Florida history.
"Either it happened that way by accident, or it was an ingenious strategy to clog up the polling places," said Monica Russo, president of the SEIU Florida State Council, the governing arm of the labor union. "In the early voting so far, they are the cause for the long lines."
In Miami-Dade, early voting wait times in some precincts stretched from four to six hours.
"It's taking voters a very long time to read it," said Judith Brown Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C., civil rights nonprofit founded in 1999. "Some voters are taking as long as an hour to fill it out."
Longer ballots mean more paper that needs to be fed through scanning machines, increasing the odds of jams — and longer delays.
2 Provisional ballots. Four years ago, 30,000 Florida residents voted regularly despite not informing elections officials that they had moved until they arrived at the polls. As long as a clerk could confirm their registered status — and that they had not already voted in their former precinct — they could vote like everyone else.
But a 2011 elections law forces Florida voters who move outside their county without updating their registration by Election Day to vote by provisional ballot. These voters then have to verify residency by 5 p.m. Thursday — or lose their vote.
College students are particularly at risk.
"We could have a scenario where we have tens of thousands of provisional ballots because of this new requirement," said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters. "Think about the number of students at our community colleges and universities who will encounter this, and the delays this will cause at the polls."
About half of all provisional ballots were rejected in 2008, mainly because voters didn't bother coming back to verify their status, said Daniel A. Smith, a University of Florida political science professor.
"It's a form of double jeopardy," Smith said.
3 Absentee ballots. In Florida and across the nation, more people than ever are voting by mail ballot.
Yet these ballots average a rejection rate double that of voting in person.
"Absentee ballots are the next ticking time bomb," said Nate Persily, a political science professor at Columbia University. "It's unreliable because it has more opportunities for error. A ballot has to be requested, received, filled out properly, mailed back in time, then it must be counted in time. At each stage, there's the potential for something to go wrong."
In Palm Beach County, elections officials made an error in bar codes that ensure the ballots reach their destination, delaying the arrival of dozens of ballots for voters who requested them. They made another error in the design of more than 20,000 absentee ballots — requiring elections officials to copy results onto new ballots.
Early absentee ballot rejection rates in Hillsborough County may seem small — 0.39 percent — but that represents 526 ballots through Friday. In Pinellas County, the rejection rate is 0.18 percent, or 336 ballots. Add that across the state and the number of discounted votes could add up.
The Republican-controlled Legislature has eased restrictions on absentee voting since 2000, a puzzling move for elections experts because this type of voting is more susceptible to tampering.
"Absentee ballots are where you find the fraud," Persily said. "It doesn't happen in person."
4 Challenges. Groups like True the Vote and Tampa Fair Vote will have poll watchers ready to stop anyone they suspect as ineligible to vote. Florida law requires those challenged to vote by provisional ballot. (See No. 2.)
This effort taps into a conviction among Republicans that it's too easy to rig the vote at the polls by impersonating other people or voting twice.
Jamie Miller, a veteran Republican strategist, said he thinks as many as 10,000 votes cast in person are fraudulent and he doesn't trust official numbers that say such fraud is nearly nonexistent.
"Any county you go to, the supervisor will say there's no fraud," Miller said. "But they're the most biased because to admit fraud would be their failing. At some level, there's fraud. How much exists? I don't know."
Miller said having poll watchers look for fraud is the best deterrent against it. But no one knows just how many challenges are to come.
"They could be really disruptive," said Foley. "There's a genuine risk of overzealousness, and that could create real problems."
In Florida, it's relatively easy to challenge someone.
"It's only a misdemeanor to falsely accuse someone," Smith said. "Meanwhile, it gives poll workers something else to deal with. They already have enough on their hands."
5 Confusion. Every 10 years, many voters get assigned a new precinct because of redistricting. This is one of those years.
In Pinellas County, for example, about 20 percent of the 626,000 registered voters have new polling locations, said Nancy Whitlock, a spokeswoman for Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark. All registered voters were sent new information cards in June and July detailing their new precincts. If voters go to their old precincts, they can fill out a form that allows them to cut in line so they don't have to wait at their correct polling location, Whitlock said.
But some doubt the publicity has sunk in.
"I don't think people are aware of this," said Macnab. "We won't know until the polls open."
Contact Michael Van Sickler at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected]