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Getting ready for a Florida election with a very long ballot

Three supervisors of elections discuss their preparations for a critical statewide vote.
Voting experts Paul Lux, Mark Earley and Wesley Wilcox discuss the 2018 election with Dr. Susan MacManus [Steve Bousquet - Tampa Bay Times]
Voting experts Paul Lux, Mark Earley and Wesley Wilcox discuss the 2018 election with Dr. Susan MacManus [Steve Bousquet - Tampa Bay Times]
Published Sep. 28, 2018
Updated Sep. 28, 2018

GAINESVILLE — Days before voting by mail begins across Florida, county election supervisors are encouraging people to vote by mail and avoid the possibility of standing in line at early voting sites or on election day.

One reason: This year's ballot is longer than usual, with a dozen proposed constitutional amendments. Voting experts want to limit ballot fatigue by preventing long lines at the polls.

The ballot in Marion — a typical medium-sized county — fills three full columns on both sides of a legal-sized ballot card, 14 inches long. That's seven feet of choices stretched end to end.

"It's going to take the average voter 30 to 35 minutes to read that ballot in the voting booth," Marion Supervisor Wesley Wilcox said. "If there are no available voting booths, you will stand in line until a booth becomes available."

As an alternative, he said, voters can take as much time as they need with a mail ballot at home and forgo the possibility of waiting in line.

Wilcox and supervisors Paul Lux of Okaloosa County and Mark Earley of Leon took part in an election forum Thursday at the University of Florida campus in Gainesville.

Hosted by UF's Bob Graham Center for Public Service, the forum focused on ballot security, cybersecurity threats and the possibility of voter fraud and voter suppression. Dr. Susan MacManus of USF served as moderator.

Counties have spent millions of dollars on security upgrades to plan for the possibility of interference, but the specific improvements in most cases are not public.

"If I tell you exactly what we're doing, then I'm giving you the key to get in to our elections," Lux said.

The first wave of millions of mail ballots will be shipped next Tuesday, Oct. 2, in a critical and closely-watched election in which Floridians will pick a governor, U.S. senator and other officeholders.

Supervisors reminded the public that a 2016 court decision gives voters the chance to cure a signature deficiency on a mail ballot before the election to make sure it gets counted.

The state tracks the return of mail ballots, county by county, on this web site through election night, Nov. 6.

Florida had the longest lines in the country in the 2012 presidential election, when there were 11 statewide ballot questions. The state had curtailed early voting days that year — a decision lawmakers later acknowledged was a mistake — and expanded early voting times and locations a year later.

READ MORE: Faced with long lines at some sites, early voters stay patient

Earley, an early voting evangelist in Tallahassee, said voting by mail, while convenient, is also the form of voting most susceptible to "schemes and scams" such as volunteers showing up at people's homes offering to provide "assistance" in voting. (He said supervisors closely monitor absentee voting to prevent such activity).

Supervisors say they are getting calls from voters asking why the numbering of the constitutional amendments skipped No. 8. (Courts knocked the three-pronged education proposal off the ballot before ballots were printed).

Wilcox noted that more than 99.9 percent of all votes in Florida are cast by paper ballots, which by law must be kept for 22 months to preserve every voter's intent in case of a problem, not to mention a manual recount.

"Paper ballots are the bedrock," Wilcox said. "It gives us the most confidence in what we do."