1. Florida Politics

In trial run, voters learn that long ballots could mean long waits

Published Oct. 11, 2012

A warning to Florida voters: Be prepared to pack plenty of patience at the polls.

In what amounted to a dry run for early voting and Election Day, President Barack Obama's campaign encouraged supporters Wednesday to cast mail-in ballots in person at elections offices throughout Florida, where voters said people need to do their homework and to be prepared for a long stay because of lengthy ballots.

It took some voters an hour to cast their ballots Wednesday morning in Miami-Dade. In St. Petersburg and in Tampa, there was no wait in the afternoon.

Many more Floridians — 76,000 and counting — are voting from the comfort of their own homes by mailing in absentee ballots. Republicans hold a small edge.

Democrats have historically waited until the start of in-person early voting before they cast their ballots.

But the GOP-controlled Legislature shortened the number of in-person early voting hours compared with 2008's. It also lengthened the ballot with 11 proposed constitutional amendments printed in full for the first time ever.

"There had to be some type of intention to discourage people from voting," said Stephen Wayner, a 67-year-old Democrat from Miami who cast his absentee ballot Wednesday.

On Wednesday, many of the 30 people who showed up to vote early with Wayner shared the belief that Republicans want to suppress the vote — a concept dismissed as groundless by Rep. Richard Corcoran, a Tampa Bay-area Republican who helped sponsor the legislation that called for full-length constitutional amendments on the ballot.

Corcoran said people should take their ire out on the "liberal Florida Supreme Court," which repeatedly struck down the Legislature's proposed constitutional amendments over the years on the grounds that the initiatives' ballot summaries were misleading or needed "clear and unambiguous" language.

"They created this concept out of whole cloth. It's not in the Constitution," Corcoran said. "So what we did is we said, 'Fine. If this is the unfortunate game you want to play, we will make it clear and unambiguous.' Now people know exactly what they're voting for. And that's a wonderful thing."

Each ballot takes about 70 seconds to print — adding a 35-minute wait for the last person in the 30-voter queue at the Miami-Dade elections headquarters in Doral on Wednesday. Some voters took more than 30 minutes to get through the ballot.

Once early voting begins officially — on Saturday, Oct. 27 — the Doral office intends to have two printers and more booths available to voters.

"We want what's most convenient for the voters," said Christina White, deputy elections supervisor in Miami-Dade. "We're urging people to early vote when early voting begins or to fill out their absentee ballots at home and mail them in."

Wednesday's Obama campaign event came during the final stretch of the campaign, in which the candidates and their wives are stumping in Florida weekly. Today, the president is scheduled to give a speech at the University of Miami before heading to a downtown Miami fundraiser with actor Eva Longoria, his campaign's national co-chair.

Obama's organized effort to get people to cast absentee ballots in person wasn't as apparent in Pinellas County.

Only a few people trickled though the county's St. Petersburg elections office Wednesday afternoon, and most had completed their mail-in ballots ahead of time.

Some Republicans showed up as well.

Bernice Killen, 84, of St. Petersburg said completing her long ballot was easy enough. She read the newspaper before voting for or against the 11 constitutional amendments.

"It was easy to go through it all," said the Republican, who voted the party line.

Bernard Wright, 76, of St. Petersburg was in and out of the elections office in less than 10 seconds. "It's much easier for me" to vote absentee, Wright said.

Democrats made absentee-ballot voting a higher priority this election after Republican legislators, in 2011, shortened the days of early voting from a maximum of 14 to a maximum of eight.

In addition to cutting back on the early voting days, the Legislature eliminated early voting on the Sunday before Election Day.

Republicans say the early voting changes, part of the law that included the language concerning constitutional amendments, was designed to give county elections officials more flexibility. Democrats say it's simply voter suppression.

Though the total number of early voting hours is the same under law — 96 — it's actually fewer hours than were available in 2008. The total early voting hours reached 120 then because Gov. Charlie Crist issued an executive order requiring the polls to stay open for an extra four hours daily to accommodate all of the early voting, much of which broke for Obama, who won must-win Florida and, therefore, the White House.

"You're seeing the Democrats make a push for more absentee ballot voting because they have to," said Brett Doster, a Florida adviser to Republican Mitt Romney's campaign. "We're confident that, by Election Day, we'll have a comfortable lead with absentee ballot votes."

Times staff writers Aaron Sharockman, Bill Varian and Anna M. Phillips contributed to this report.