These days in Florida it's hard to tell when an election actually begins. Absentee ballots were mailed nearly four weeks ago. But today marks the first day of early voting, a now time-honored and valuable ritual that mimics going to the polls on Election Day. And it will be a critical test for the state's elected county election supervisors. A tight presidential race, a statewide Senate contest and a ballot loaded with state and local referenda all point to long lines, especially in urban counties such as Pinellas and Hillsborough. Local supervisors will need to ensure early voting sites are adequately staffed and any problems quickly resolved to ensure faith in the eventually tally.
County supervisors have worked hard to make this season's early voting process get off without a hitch. The reduction of early voting days ordered by the Legislature, legal challenges to the broader voter suppression law and the chaos created by Gov. Rick Scott's sloppy, last-minute attempt to purge the voting rolls all contributed to unnecessary anxiety and confusion among supervisors and voters alike.
But it's showtime today. Many of the larger counties, including Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Miami-Dade, are among the 35 counties offering the full 96 hours of early voting, spread over eight straight 12-hour days. The goal for these jurisdictions is to maximize turnout and reduce the potential for backups on Nov. 6, Election Day.
Early voting is not simply a convenience, but essential to the modern democratic process. Up to half the votes cast this year will be cast by Election Day, either by mail or at an early voting site. Most supervisors, to their credit, have shown they are sensitive to the needs of their local voters. Too many, though, need to expand the hours of early voting and the number of early voting sites. Hernando County's outgoing Supervisor Annie Williams, for example, said she simply didn't have the budget to provide all 96 hours. Her successor should figure out next time how to do so. And Pinellas County Supervisor Deborah Clark continues to limit early voting sites to just three, far too few in a major county.
Early voting remains the better option than absentee ballots. The chance of fraud is reduced, as voters showing up at the polls are subject to more scrutiny than are those who request an absentee ballot. Plus, the ballots cast at early voting remain in a controlled setting — unlike absentee ballots.
For all Scott's concern about noncitizens casting ballots, the real voting scandal in recent history has revolved around "ballot brokers" who collect absentee ballots from voters on behalf of candidates and political parties who have the only access to the nonpublic lists of who has requested them. More than a dozen cases of alleged fraud involving absentee ballots have been leveled the last two years from Miami-Dade to North Florida. And there is a greater chance for voter error with absentee ballots — such as forgetting to sign the back of the envelope — that can lead to a higher number of disqualified votes.
This election sees Floridians voting the longest ballot in recent history, thanks to the 11 — many of them lengthy — state constitutional amendments. The more voters who can be served this coming week with early voting, the better for the entire process come Election Day. And it should also serve as a reminder to the Republican-led Legislature that Floridians deserve access to the polls when it works best for them, not best for the government.