Thursday, February 22, 2018
Politics

Several factors contributed to late votes being cast in Hernando

BROOKSVILLE — The turnout in Tuesday's election in Hernando County probably seemed like a record buster to voters who stood in line well after the polling place closed at the Suncoast Dance and Party Center on County Line Road.

In fact, Hernando saw an unofficial turnout of 68 percent, well short of the 72 percent during the 2008 general election.

By comparison, 69 percent of registered voters showed up in Pasco, 75 percent in Citrus and 72 percent in both Pinellas and Hillsborough. The statewide average came in at 70 percent.

It's a little disappointing, said Hernando Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams.

"I thought we'd do a little better than 68 percent, which is still good," she said.

But the turnout was high enough to help contribute to lengthy wait times. At the dance hall, home to Precinct 14, the last voter didn't cast a ballot until just after 9 p.m.

Williams said that has never happened in the 38 years she has worked at the elections office, the last dozen of them as supervisor.

But it wasn't surprising. For months, officials throughout Florida warned voters about a confluence of events that would likely cause long lines.

The two-page, double-sided ballot with 11 wordy constitutional amendments was one of the longest in recent memory, the first time with the optical scanner system. Also, the Legislature cut the number of early voting days from 14 to eight. And the Hernando elections office is struggling to run elections on an ever-shrinking budget, Williams said.

"It's unfortunate we didn't have the funds to accommodate our voters better," she said. "We served them the best we could with the funds we had."

Many voters like to cast ballots early to avoid long lines on Election Day. But Hernando voters reported waiting for two hours at the Spring Hill office on Forest Oaks Boulevard, one of two early voting sites in the county.

In Florida, 35 counties offered the full 96 hours of early voting, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day. Hernando had the fewest early voting hours in the state — 62 — including 22 hours on the weekend, when the law allows a maximum of 36.

The office couldn't afford the overtime to open the Brooksville and Spring Hill offices for more than that, Williams said. Ideally, she said, the office could afford to pay for more equipment and staff time to operate at least one more early voting site.

Another factor in the long Election Day lines, according to Williams: the recent merging of precincts to align the boundaries with census tracts and new political boundaries. The number of precincts was cut from 57 to 39.

The elections office has struggled in some parts of the county to find buildings large enough to house polling places, she said.

Precinct 14, for example, saw a turnout of 55 percent, one of the lowest among the 39 precincts. But its voter roll of more than 5,700 is among the largest.

"That's an enormous amount of people to put into one precinct," Williams said.

The precinct had four electronic voter identification machines. A couple more might have helped the line move faster, but they're costly, said Liz Townsend, the office's director of operations.

As a result of the wait times, complete results were delayed until past 10 p.m. Tuesday. But results from most precincts came in within an hour after polls closed.

Otherwise, the election was generally glitch free, Williams said. An optical ballot scanner stopped accepting ballots for some reason at the Jerome Brown Community Center in Brooksville, requiring some ballots to be stored in a secure bin to be scanned later in the day.

A precinct-by-precinct breakdown of results was not available Thursday.

The election marked the last for Williams, who is retiring. Republican Shirley Anderson, an aide for U.S. Rep Rich Nugent, beat Townsend, a Democrat, by about 2,600 votes and will take over in January.

Anderson, who has no experience running an elections office, campaigned on a promise to make the Hernando operation more efficient, effective and accountable to county taxpayers. She said that she intends to keep the office's existing employees, including Townsend, at least through a 90-day review period.

Anderson has a challenge ahead of her to vastly improve and expand services, Williams said.

"If she's dealing with the same budget I have, we'll see," she said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.

 
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