Friday, December 15, 2017
Opinion

Steps to turn around Florida's image on voting

Twice in recent years, Florida has been a national laughingstock for bungling elections. It's time to fix this problem, for economic and civic reasons as well as simple self-respect.

The perception of electoral incompetence contributes to Floridians' erosion of trust in government and the democratic process. It sends the message to non-Floridians that we are not competent to maintain a functional society. What business, looking to expand or relocate, wouldn't rethink basing its operations in a state that can't manage such a vital obligation? Will families think twice about moving to a state that they see failing on such a foundational duty?

We must turn this around, and we can.

Here's how:

Everyone at the table

AARP Florida, along with many others, has called on Gov. Rick Scott to convene a task force to identify what went wrong and how to address it. That working group should include all entities necessary to identify and solve this problem: legislators from both parties and both houses, state and local elections officials, academics and business leaders with expertise and insight, and civic groups that represent the full diversity of Florida citizens. With 2.7 million Florida members, AARP is eager to be part of the solution.

Focus on fixes, not blame games

Some are tempted to use our failures as a political weapon — party vs. party, state vs. local. Instead, we should identify what went wrong and why, and then focus on working together to ensure we don't repeat these mistakes.

Address the short term and the long term

We need to ensure nobody ever waits six hours in line just to vote in a Florida election. But we also need a stem-to-stern review of the elections process to find ways to improve our system and ward off the next chaotic election. AARP Florida calls for comprehensive reviews and ongoing changes that result in greater ease in voting for citizens, clearer roles and responsibilities for each player in the voting process, and more efficient systems for preventing voter fraud. Specifically, AARP urges:

Floors, not ceilings

State election laws should provide minimum standards for voter accessibility through early voting and free local supervisors to develop plans that best accommodate their constituents.

Leverage the odd-numbered years

Develop and implement fraud detection systems in off years. Introducing voter purges on the eve of a presidential election allows too much room for error and undermines the integrity of the process.

Minimize provisional ballots

High instances of provisional ballots should be seen as system failures. We should analyze the circumstances of provisional ballots to assess how better to equip voters to make their vote count.

Benchmarks and metrics

Many Florida counties held near-flawless elections. So did counties in other states with similar populations. Florida's Division of Elections should work with election supervisors and other stakeholders to develop clear metrics that track an election's success in terms of accessibility, compare our counties to established benchmarks, and pollinate best practices.

Stress tests, strike forces and never events

We should develop processes to make sure the workers in each polling place are prepared for success. Identifying where problems might lie, such as in precincts with too many voters for too few machines or staff, will allow supervisors, and if need be, the state, to intervene with solutions. When an egregious mistake happens — what in health care circles is called a "never event" — it needs to be documented along with a process to ensure it never happens again.

Innovation that increases participation

Whether it's lifting voter ID and signature requirements that trip up rightful voters (including older voters) or eliminating ballot rules that allow campaigns to artificially "close" primaries with recruited write-in candidates, we need to look at any and all options to empower Florida voters to make their voices heard.

Florida can build a culture of electoral excellence. We have rich community assets — government, nonprofit and for-profit leaders, and institutions with a wealth of knowledge. We must use every tool available not only to ensure that Florida avoids future voting debacles but to make Florida the best example of empowering citizens to participate in the democratic process.

Jeff Johnson is AARP Florida's state director. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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