TALLAHASSEE — A new nonpartisan study says Florida lagged behind other states in its handling of the 2012 election, but Gov. Rick Scott's administration says the problems were cured by changes to voting laws that will be used statewide this fall for the first time.
The study by Pew Charitable Trusts said states generally did a better job managing the 2012 election than in 2008. The notable exception was Florida, which had the nation's 49th-longest wait times to vote. Average wait times swelled by 16 minutes in Florida and decreased an average of three minutes elsewhere.
Florida also had more spoiled or unreturned mail ballots than most states, the study found. It ranked 28th overall in 17 factors that make up Pew's Elections Performance Index.
"Florida is neither a high- nor low-performing state," Pew said. "Florida was held back to a large degree by dramatic spikes in average wait time to vote and rejected registrations."
The state ranked higher than most states in voter turnout (15th), data completeness (18th) and in rejection rates for provisional ballots (19th).
Scott's chief elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, sought to debunk the study's negative findings by noting that the state retooled voting laws in 2013 to address historically long lines at the polls by expanding potential early voting hours and types of sites that can be used for early voting.
Florida became the target of TV comics' ridicule in November 2012 as voters waited up to eight hours to cast ballots in Miami-Dade, forcing Scott and legislators to react with reforms.
The 2013 bill (HB 7013) expanded early voting to a minimum of 64 hours over eight days and maximum of 168 hours over 14 days and allows early voting the Sunday before Election Day at the discretion of each county elections supervisor.
"The previous practices reviewed in the report no longer reflect today's voting laws because of last year's reforms," Detzner said.
In response, David Becker, director of Pew's elections initiatives, said: "We appreciate the great work Florida is doing to improve their election administration and we look forward to seeing how the policy changes they made after the 2012 election affects their performance in 2014 and beyond."
The Pew study comes less than a week after a panel of three federal appeals court judges ruled that a 2012 effort by the Scott administration to scrub the voter file of noncitizen voters was illegal because it took place less than 90 days before a federal election.
At the Capitol Tuesday, Democratic legislators, joined by like-minded voter advocates, made last-ditch calls for what has become a hopeless cause: asking Republican legislative leaders to take up their bills to expand voter protections, including requiring the state attorney general to get Supreme Court approval of any voting law changes.
The session will end in a few weeks without those bills getting a public hearing.
As Florida heads into a highly competitive campaign for governor, Democrats are expected to continue to use the threat of voter suppression as a way to galvanize voters to get to the polls.
"Voters of color are more vulnerable than ever and the need to protect the vote is more urgent than ever," said Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando.
Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, expressed optimism about the 2013 legislation improving voting this year.
"Reinstituting popular early voting days, including the Sunday before the election, are important steps for improving Florida's chaotic history of accessible elections," Macnab said Tuesday.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected]ay.com or (850) 224-7263.