Florida will investigate voting problems in 5 counties

Lawmakers question the elections chief before his trip to five counties with problems.
Published December 4 2012
Updated December 5 2012

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers on Tuesday began scrutinizing all that went wrong at the polls last month, and Gov. Rick Scott's elections team made plans to investigate five counties that "underperformed."

Secretary of State Ken Detzner said he and voting experts will make "fact-finding" trips next week to Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Lee counties and report findings to the governor.

Lines of voters in Miami-Dade were up to seven hours long, Palm Beach had to fix thousands of misprinted absentee ballots and St. Lucie was the only county that failed to count all ballots by a state deadline. The other two counties struggled with long lines, too.

"Long lines are unacceptable," Detzner testified.

Addressing a House committee, Detzner said Scott defined an underperforming county as one where wait times at polling places were more than four hours.

Detzner praised Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez for creating a task force to study what went wrong and how to fix it.

The road trip begins Monday in Tampa, where elections officials will visit retiring Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Earl Lennard, whose county mostly got things right, Detzner said.

"He had some lines," Detzner said. "But I want to use him as a benchmark in our first interview process as a good performer."

Elections experts testifying at hearings in the Capitol said one of the biggest culprits contributing to the mess of long lines and mountains of last-minute absentee ballots was the historically long ballot with 11 constitutional amendments in an election where 8.5 million voted.

"It was kind of a perfect storm with the turnout and the length of the ballot," Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said.

All 11 amendments were put on the ballot by the Legislature, which exempted itself from a 75-word ballot summary limit that applies to citizen-sponsored questions. Several were printed in the full text with hundreds of words each, and most failed.

"I think we've all learned a valuable lesson from that," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, chairman of the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee. "I don't think we're here for the blame game, but there's probably enough blame to go around."

Latvala, first elected in 1994, singled out Palm Beach as "a problem as long as I've been in politics."

Elections supervisors renewed a long-standing request to expand early voting sites beyond the three categories limited by a 2011 law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature — elections offices, libraries and city halls.

But counties also drew criticism for not opening as many sites as possible.

Democrats repeatedly have offered bills to expand early voting to other buildings, such as churches and convention centers.

Other suggestions Tuesday included more county money for elections equipment, improved training of poll workers, expanded use of faster electronic equipment that verifies voters signatures and a limit on the number of ballot initiatives in presidential election years when turnout is highest.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, vice chairwoman of the Senate elections panel, said Latvala set a positive tone and wants to find solutions.

"We're exploring what went wrong," Sobel said. "There was a conscientious effort to look at voting as a nonpartisan issue."

Not discussed was whether the GOP's truncated early voting timetable, from 14 days to eight, was a contributing factor. Most lawmakers left that highly charged issue untouched on a day largely devoid of partisan rancor.

Detzner said the visits to counties will be open to media coverage and are intended as a "dialogue."

"This is about how we can solve problems, not point fingers," Detzner said.

Latvala said he wants his committee to hold hearings in Miami-Dade and Broward in January and take public testimony.

Counties continue to compile data from the election, including the total numbers of provisional and absentee ballots counted or discarded by local canvassing boards.

In Hillsborough, for instance, the county rejected 1,669 absentees, or 1 percent of the 171,323 cast.

The majority of rejected absentees (1,074) arrived after voting ended at 7 p.m. Nov. 6.

But 99 had a voter's signature that did not match the one on file, 61 were from voters who had moved away, 20 were signed by a person other than the voter and six had died since requesting an absentee ballot.

Pinellas' figures on rejected absentees are not yet available.

Latvala wanted to know why so many absentee ballots are discarded as flawed and what can be done about that. He also told reporters that he questions Pinellas elections chief Deborah Clark's strategy of aggressively promoting absentee voting.

"It's almost unnatural how hard they push to get people to vote by mail there," Latvala said. "I think there's a lot more propensity for fraud in mail ballots than there is with people who go and vote in person."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.