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Florida voters facing a long, long ballot in November

Published Oct. 10, 2012


TALLAHASSEE — Brace yourselves, Florida voters: The election ballot you'll see this fall is longer than ever.


It's so long that voters will have to fill out multiple sheets with races on both sides, then feed those multiple pages through ballot scanners, one page at a time.


It's a pocketbook issue, too: Some people who vote by mail will have to dig deeper and pay at least 65 cents postage and up to $1.50 to return their multipage ballots in heavier envelopes.


More than ever, county election supervisors say, people should vote early or request an absentee ballot to avoid predicted bottlenecks at the polls on Election Day.


"This is the longest ballot I can remember," said Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark. "The voter who sees this ballot the first time may need smelling salts."


The ballot will be chock full of choices, for president, U.S. Senate, Congress, the state Legislature, county offices and merit retention for judges, all the way down to city and county referendums.


But what may prompt some voters to rub their eyes in disbelief is the Legislature's decision to place 11 proposed changes to the Constitution on the ballot, some of which appear in their entirety.


"They have really created a monster," said Monroe County Supervisor of Elections Harry Sawyer Jr. in Key West.


Four amendments run on for hundreds of words, and are full of legalese such as this, on Amendment No. 5, dealing with the court system: "If the Legislature determines that a rule has been readopted and repeals the readopted rule, this proposed revision prohibits the court from further readopting the repealed rule without the Legislature's prior approval."


The Legislature has long criticized the Florida Supreme Court for rejecting some of its proposed amendments as misleading, which some Republican lawmakers view as an overreach by the judiciary.


In 2000, the court retroactively struck down a 1998 constitutional amendment on the death penalty, calling the ballot summary incomplete and misleading.


The court said legislators misled voters by replacing the term "cruel or unusual punishment" with "cruel and unusual punishment," which it said was a "radical change" not explained to voters, 73 percent of whom approved the amendment.


As a result, the Legislature exempted itself from the 75-word limit that applies to citizen-sponsored ballot initiatives.


"It's an effort by the Legislature, the body closest to the people, to ensure that voters have the right to vote on these amendments," said Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity.


Corcoran said most voters will do their homework and know the amendments before they vote. But some election supervisors aren't so sure.


"To understand these full-text amendments, you almost have to be a Harvard lawyer," said Sharon Harrington, the Lee County elections supervisor in Fort Myers.


With all that verbiage, election supervisors predict a higher than usual rate of "drop-off," as voters overlook state ballot questions altogether. If they do, they also may skip city or county ballot questions listed below the state questions.


"There is such a thing as voter fatigue," Clark said. "You have that with any long ballot."


Another factor making the ballot longer is a federal requirement that 13 counties must print ballots in English and Spanish because of their voting populations. The state's two largest counties, Miami-Dade and Broward, must print ballots in English, Spanish and Creole.


Miami-Dade, which also has local elections in 14 cities, may publish a 10-page ballot — five pages, front and back — and an ad campaign will remind voters they can vote early or by mail. Voters can print a sample ballot online and check wait times at early voting sites.


"We want to educate voters because of the inevitability of long wait times," said Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Penelope Townsley.


All those ballot pages mean voters will need more time to vote.


"I'm beyond concerned," said Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley. "The unknown variable is how long the voter is in the privacy booth. They can be there as long as they want to."


Corley is adding brightly colored "voter alert" notices on business cards, utility bills and voter information cards issued by his office, urging people to request absentee ballots for the Nov. 6 election.


"Avoid lines and vote from the convenience of your home," the notices tell Pasco voters.


So many ballot pages means more work for those box-shaped optical scan machines that "read" the results. That has elections officials bracing for another problem.


The boxes below those scanners can only hold so many pages, and they will have to be replaced a lot more frequently than usual.


"We're going to have to stop periodically throughout the day and empty those bins and seal them," said Harrington of Lee County. "It may hold up some people at the polls for a little while."


Lee County voters have in the past been given a two-page ballot because of the county's multitude of elections for single-purpose boards such as fire districts. This year's ballot is four pages with choices on both sides.


Like most counties, Lee will send every registered voter a sample ballot. Harrington says people who want to vote on Election Day should fill out the sample ballot at home and bring it with them when they vote.


The cost for a Lee County voter to return an absentee ballot is 65 cents, the same as in Pasco and Pinellas counties.


Pinellas offers 14 ballot return sites throughout the county so that voters can return their mail ballots without buying stamps.


Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher said the postage needed to return a mail ballot there is $1.50.


Elections officials don't like to say it publicly, but they have agreements with the U.S. Postal Service to pay for postage due on ballot envelopes.


For the first time, Hillsborough is prepaying the postage for all of its six-page mail ballots, as a convenience to voters. The cost is about $105,000.


Deirdre Macnab of Winter Park, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said the length of the ballot may make legislators regret their decision to reduce the number of early voting days from 14 to eight. The group challenged the decision in court.


"It's going to be a long ballot, and the eyes of the country will be on the state of Florida again," Macnab says. "People really need to be ready."


Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

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