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How other states have modernized elections offers lessons for Florida

TALLAHASSEE — This November in Austin, Texas, voters will pick a president during their regular trip to the grocery store.

Maine residents who have never voted will register on Election Day. Every Colorado voter will get a ballot in the mail that they can mail or drop off anytime before the polls close. And some Alaskans will simply mark their ballots online.

More and more, waiting in line at a neighborhood school or church to vote on a Tuesday in November is becoming archaic. Around the country, states are changing their laws accordingly, hoping to make casting a ballot as convenient as possible.

And then there's Florida, a state that has shunned same-day voter registration and vote centers as an alternative to busy precincts. Residents here have to request a mail-in ballot every other election year or set aside time to go to a polling place.

"We have a state that has a history of disenfranchising voters," said Pamela Goodman, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. "We have to continually be on the watch for legislation that moves us backward instead of forward."

Florida has developed a reputation for its long lines well into the night on Election Day in 2012 and for rarely granting voting rights to felons who have served their full sentences. But perhaps the biggest hurdle facing potential voters, Goodman said, is the state's resistance to allowing voter registration on Election Day.

Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley disagrees with the critics, saying it's not fair to paint Florida as behind-the-times. Rather, he said, programs like early voting, mail-in ballots and online voter registration set to begin in 2017 make it more convenient for people to vote in Florida than many other states.

"I think Florida to some degree gets unfairly criticized," Corley said. "We talk about things such as early voting… Some states have restrictions on voting by mail."

Increasingly, Florida's nearly 12 million voters are turning to those alternatives. In the 2012 and 2014 elections, more ballots were cast at early-voting locations or via mail than in person on Election Day.

Still, some voting rights advocates contend that Florida ought to do more to bring elections into the 21st century. Reforming Election Day access and voter registration laws, they say, could ease difficulties faced by some of the very people who are most likely to be turned off to the political process, namely young and minority voters.

"I tend to want to start with the positive," Goodman said, "but we certainly have many battles yet to climb."

In the voting booth

The idea in Austin was straightforward. The one place every person has to go, no matter what part of town they live in, is the grocery store.

Voters in Travis County, the home of Texas' capital, had been casting a ballot at the same place they pick up a loaf of bread since the 1990s, when Dana DeBeauvoir, the county clerk in Austin, first approached grocers with the idea of using their stores for early voting.

It's so convenient, she said, that people sometimes wait in longer lines at the grocery store to vote instead of making a separate trip to another polling place.

In 2011, the program expanded to Election Day voting as well through "vote centers" that allow people to vote at any polling place in the county, regardless of where they live. They've spread quickly across the country, particularly in the last five years when states such as Arkansas, Arizona, Tennessee and Wyoming started to allow them.

"Precinct voting fits a 1950s version of how we used to live," DeBeauvoir said. "A neighborhood polling place fit that time perfectly. It just doesn't fit today's life."

That same theory is behind many of the recent election reforms in other states. Officials in states controlled by both Republicans and Democrats say simplifying voting is their most important job.

"Any way that we can, we make it easier for voters," said Amber McReynolds, director of elections in Denver.

Colorado is one of three states that mails a ballot to every registered voter, whether they request one or not. That way, McReynolds says, people can drop their ballot in the mail or bring it to a drop box set up by the county. They can still come in on Election Day to vote, too.

"By sending out a ballot and putting it in voters' hands, we're giving them options," she said.

The change to conduct every Colorado election by mail was part of a sweeping overhaul of the state's voting laws passed by the legislature in 2013. But allowing people to fill out ballots at home and send them in has become a common practice nationally.

In the 2012 presidential election, Alaska became the only state that lets voters submit a ballot online. Election officials set up a system that emails a ballot to voters who opt in. They fill it out and use a secure online system to submit their choices to be printed and counted like any other ballot.

"We have a lot of travelers in Alaska," said Carol Thompson, a 25-year veteran of the state's Division of Elections. "We're kind of a transient state and some people just like to vote in that manner at home."

In Florida, residents must request that their county mail their ballot to them, and they have to renew the request after two statewide elections. But unlike states such as New York and Alabama, they don't have to cite a reason.

"Mrs. Corley loves vote by mail," said Brian Corley of Pasco County, president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. "She likes to be able to hop on the computer and do the research on the candidates and the issues at the dining room table and then fill out a ballot."

The registration problem

Policymakers who want more people to vote can control only two things: how people cast their ballot and how they register to vote.

While some of the most dramatic election reforms change when or where people vote — such as vote centers or mail-in ballots — activists say making voter registration easier is the best way to increase turnout.

"The single biggest piece of voter enfranchisement that encourages voter turnout, is same-day voter registration," said Goodman, the League of Women Voters president. "And we are nowhere on that."

Election Day voter registration, or same-day registration, has become more common in recent years. But in Maine, they've been doing it since by a Republican-led legislature passed it in 1973.

In most states, voter registration deadlines are weeks or even months before an election. But Election Day registration lets eligible citizens sign up when they arrive at a polling place, even if they've recently moved or they've never voted before.

"You can show up at five minutes to 8 at a polling station in Maine if you're not registered" and still vote, the state's Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said.

Recently, Oregon became the first state to take it a step farther and automatically register every resident to vote.

"There's a consensus among political scientists that Election Day registration does increase turnout," said Jonathan Brater, a lawyer with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "When people do get registered, they vote at higher rates."

If states and counties want more people to participate in elections, he said, they should look at same-day or automatic voter registration, although the affects of the latter on turnout have not been studied closely.

These policies also address an issue would-be voters across the country face every year.

"Sometimes people think they're registered and they're not or they're not properly registered," said Donald Palmer, a former Florida director of elections now with the Bipartisan Policy Center, "That's what causes problems on Election Day is voters' registration isn't correct."

Goodman says that's a particular concern for groups of people that tend to move across town or even across state lines more frequently. Millennials, people who live in cities and minority voters are of particular concern, because even when they are informed, if they aren't registered in the right precinct before the election, their ballot might not be counted.

"Of course voters need to be educated," Goodman said. "But if we don't make voting accessible, both the registration and the voting itself, even the most educated voter won't be able to vote."

No 'silver bullet'

Although Florida has been slow to take up the mantle of election reform, Palmer and Corley say the state is hardly at the back of the pack, especially after the Legislature approved online voter registration beginning in the 2018 election.

Whenever Palmer hears critiques of the state's voter turnout — which tends to fall around the middle when compared to other states — he sees a solution not in big policy changes but in more education.

"I don't think there's any silver bullet for voter participation," he said.

That's a point election administrators across the country raise. Even if they could overhaul the entire voting system, it might not have any affect on how many voters cast a ballot.

"At some point, is it really a problem when you only have 60 percent turnout?" asked Dunlap, whose state had the highest voter turnout in the 2014 election: 58 percent. "It's up to the voter… One of my favorite sayings is that the world is run by the people who show up."

Even Austin's grocery store experiment hasn't been able to stem a growing disenchantment by the electorate.

Although DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk, calls the project a success, the number of people voting in her county has actually decreased since 2012, when it started using vote centers, including at the grocery stores.

"Making voting accessible and convenient is probably the only appropriate role for government," DeBeauvoir said. "If the voting infrastructure the government provides isn't good enough, voters aren't going to like it. They're not going to turn out."

Because each state passes its own voting laws, each election cycle there are 50 different experiments going on.

While experiments in other states can provide ideas or spur changes nationally, Brater cautions that what works for people in Texas, Maine or Colorado may not be right for Floridians.

"Certain reforms might work better for certain states," he said.

From his experience, Palmer says the power to motivate voters doesn't rest with the supervisor of elections or even lawmakers in Tallahassee.

"In the end, it's the candidate and the campaign. Voters want to be inspired," he said. "And there's just not a lot of that."

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

The Florida voter

Florida has more than 12 million voters, and the state is expected to play a critical role in the 2016 presidential election. Along with its fast-growing and ever-changing electorate, Florida has been under a national microscope since the recount that decided the 2000 presidential race by 537 votes. In coming months, the Times/Herald will present "The Florida Voter," a series of in-depth stories examining the state of democracy in the nation's third most populous state.

Previous coverage

The Times/Herald looked at what's behind a stunning rise in voters who are rejecting the major political parties and registering under no party affiliation (or NPA). Go to tbtim.es/tui

How other states have modernized elections offers lessons for Florida 12/31/15 [Last modified: Thursday, December 31, 2015 1:20pm]
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