How Florida's 2012 Election Was Bungled: Absentee Ballots, Provisional Votes, And The Legislature

How The Election Was Bungled

After Election Day, America went to bed -- four times -- and still the Sunshine State hadn't declared official results.

Days later, we were still counting, despite presidential challenger Mitt Romney conceding. And while Florida once again held up the nation's final election tally, the nation held Florida in ridicule, wondering why we can't get our election act together.

"If this election contest relied on the outcome of Florida for the presidency, every single eye in this nation would be turned toward Florida, and not with affection and love," said Lee Rowland, of the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan public policy and law institute based at New York University. "Because the presidential election was decided without Florida, I'm concerned folks will walk away thinking everything worked out all right, and it didn't."

In the Sunshine State's latest election mess, the reason wasn't offbeat ballot design or the confusion of thousands of elderly South Floridians, like in 2000. The top causes for Florida being the last of the 50 states to count its votes in 2012 were a long ballot and changes ordered by the Legislature that swamped elections officials with time-consuming provisional and absentee ballots, experts said.

The big turnout meant more ballots to count. The especially long ballot meant more pages to scan. And a shortened early-voting window resulted in more absentee ballots, which require more time and scrutiny by elections officials before they can be counted.

Incoming Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford told a Tallahassee radio host Friday that the Legislature will be looking at the causes of the fiasco, and that he and his fellow lawmakers might be responsible.

"When you turn on the TV and every state is red or blue, and there's one yellow one and it's down here and it's us, we should all be a little bit embarrassed by that," the Tampa-area Republican said. "I'm not going to blame anybody. Who knows, maybe it's the Legislature's fault. Maybe we have been too ambiguous in the laws that we have passed."

While the networks ripped and poked at Florida for remaining uncommitted long after Obama's victory speech early Wednesday, the jabs flew on Twitter.

"Come on Florida; 'The Golden Girls' can count those ballots quicker," wrote one wag.

Broward's Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes defended her office's efforts, saying all legal deadlines for vote tabulation had been respected, and by the state's reporting deadline of noon Saturday, she was able to provide a complete and accurate count of all votes cast, including results of early voting, Election Day, absentee and provisional ballots.

"I'm not embarrassed; my staff is not embarrassed," Snipes said. "If we were doing something wrong and different, then yeah, we would be embarrassed. But we're doing the same thing we always do. Because it's a presidential election and it's close, everybody wants it right now."

Rowland said Florida's 2012 election-count debacle had less to do with local officials like Snipes and more to do with the state's lawmakers.

"The first and perhaps saddest answer is that the Florida Legislature decided to make it a priority in 2011 to reduce access to voter registration and voting," she said.

Not only did Florida legislators cut back the number of early voting days from 14 to eight, Rowland said, but they ensured there would be more time-consuming provisional ballots to tally. Voters who had moved from one county to another since they last voted were required to use a provisional ballot.

Provisional ballots are cast at polling places by people who can't provide adequate identification or who have problems proving their home address or registration. Before they can be counted, election officials must verify the voter's eligibility.

The Republican-led Legislature also undid a long-standing law that permitted voters who had changed their home address to cast ordinary ballots after affirming their new address under oath.

"When you put all of that together, that is a recipe for a drawn-out election process," Rowland said.

Deirdre Macnab, of the League of Women Voters of Florida, seconded that view, saying elections supervisors were thrown too many "curve balls" that created confusion and fouled up Florida's election process once again.

"Our supervisors were trying their very best," she said. "But when they are constantly being thrown curve balls by the Legislature and secretary of state ... I think that creates an instability in our system that is unhealthy, and that's when problems surface."

Broward County doesn't keep count of how many provisional ballots are received, lumping them in with the absentees. An estimated 3,500 provisional ballots came in this year.

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner defended the state's election procedures, blaming many of this year's problems on having too few early-voting sites, but promised improvements will be made.

"We will do better and we'll make it the best we can next time," Detzner told CNN on Friday. "I can tell you from the leadership in the Legislature and this governor, this problem is going to be solved."

As a way around the reduction in early voting days and Gov. Rick Scott's refusal to extend them, supervisors of elections opened their offices to walk-in voters who wanted to submit absentee ballots.

The resulting influx of last-minute absentee ballots also guaranteed a slowed-down count. The signatures on each absentee ballot have to be matched with signatures in the elections office database, a painstaking and slow process.

In Broward, 761,072 people voted this year compared with 739,861 in the last presidential election in 2008. But the county had to count 168,170 absentee ballots -- 30,000 more than four years ago.

In Palm Beach County, fewer people voted this year than in 2008, 555,806 compared with 591,332. But the county took in about 3,900 more absentee ballots.

In Miami-Dade County, officials had to count nearly 47,000 more absentee ballots.

It's a drawn-out procedure. Combined, the five scanners dedicated to absentee ballots in Broward can process a maximum of 1,000 ballots an hour, said Mary Cooney, spokeswoman for the Broward Supervisor of Elections Office.

Broward finished counting its absentee ballots about 11:30 p.m. Thursday. And on Saturday, Broward finished counting the approximately remaining 3,000 provisional ballots cast on Election Day.

However, officials still needed to review whether a batch of approximately 155 ballots that may or may not have been scanned were accounted for in the results. They remained unscanned as of late Saturday, after the canvassing board had recessed until Monday.

Those ballots will not affect three local municipal races, in Dania Beach, Margate and Hallandale, that remained up in the air just one day earlier. The Margate race was resolved Saturday. The other two were close enough to trigger automatic recounts.

"These are the kinds of things we fine-tune as we move into the final certification," Snipes told the canvassing board Saturday.

Palm Beach County, whose butterfly ballots became infamous in 2000, missed its in-house 3 p.m. Friday goal for completing the count of its remaining 2,000 provisional ballots, but finished by 4:45 a.m. Saturday.

"We are cranking hard," Palm Beach County's Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher said.

Miami-Dade County had completed its count about noon Thursday after working round-the-clock in 12-hour shifts.

Not so in Broward and Palm Beach counties, where elections officials worked from about 8 a.m. to midnight.

"I think there's some kind of unrealistic expectations that a person can go 24 hours," Snipes said. "People have to at least change clothes and get something to eat."

Palm Beach County had an additional fly in the ointment slowing the count.

Titles of judicial candidate races were left off almost 37,000 absentee ballots mailed to voters prior to Election Day. That resulted in misaligned forms that couldn't be tallied correctly by the county's vote tabulation machines.

Those ballots were printed by an Arizona-based vendor, and Bucher's office mailed them without noticing the error.

Other absentee ballots produced by Bucher's office were marred by printing errors and had to be duplicated so that they could be fed into high-speed tabulation machines. For nearly two weeks, teams of elections worker copied the votes from the flawed ballots to others that could be read by the machines. Observers from political parties were present to monitor the process.

Former Broward Republican Party Chairman Ed Pozzuoli, who was involved in the 2000 presidential recount litigation, when it took 19 days for George W. Bush's 537-vote victory in Florida to be certified by the state canvassing board, said that though his chief concern was "getting it right," the need for additional manpower to avoid holding up the results should have been foreseen.

"I do think it could be managed better so we're not waiting three days after the election to certify the result," he said.

Staff writers Kathleen Haughney, Robert Nolin, Erika Pesantes, Andy Reid, Rafael Olmeda and Brittany Wallman contributed to this report. or 954-356-4542. Twitter @talanez ___

(c)2012 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

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Before You Go

Mike Bennett
Mike Bennett (R-Bradenton) was President Pro Tempore of the Senate in 2010 when he said he was okay with making it more difficult to exercise the most treasured right in America.

"I don't have a problem making it harder [to vote]," he said. "I want people in Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who walks 200 miles across the desert. This should not be easy."

He went on: "Do you read the stories about the people in Africa? The people in the desert, who literally walk two and three hundred miles so they can have the opportunity to do what we do, and we want to make it more convenient? How much more convenient do you want to make it? Do we want to go to their house? Take the polling booth with us?"

"This is a hard-fought privilege," he added, according to the American Independent. "This is something people die for. You want to make it convenient? The guy who died to give you that right, it was not convenient. Why would we make it any easier? I want 'em to fight for it. I want 'em to know what it's like. I want them to go down there, and have to walk across town to go over and vote."

While we're not sure what "them" Bennett was referring to, we do know this: Politifact rated his African voters claim a "Pants On Fire" lie, after laughing African elections experts said the greatest distance they'd ever heard of was a 3-mile hike in Chad.

Bennett was elected Manatee County's Supervisor of Elections on Tuesday.
Miguel Diaz De La Portilla
Miguel Diaz De La Portilla is the Miami Republican who carried the proposal to reduce early voting days, according to the Palm Beach Post, citing "fraud" that doesn't exist.

"The fact is there's a lot of bad actors out there and there's an opportunity currently to game the system," De La Portilla said. But he was busted by PolitiFact after arguing early voting days should be reduced because "there is a trickle of two or three people a day" at certain Miami-Dade locations.

The fact-checking site's lie detector rated his claim a decided false, noting "we could only find two cases where the number of voters on a particular day fell to single digits -- and that was likely because of Tropical Storm Ernesto."

Diaz De La Portilla, one of three brothers heavily involved in Miami's GOP politics, made his argument in 2010 despite an increase in early voting from 2006 -- when Tropical Storm Ernesto disrupted South Florida -- to 2008's presidential contest.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
David Rivera
Florida Republicans cut back early voting over the perceived possibility of in-person fraud. But when absentee ballot fraud arrests this fall led to murmurs of regulation, then-U.S. Rep. David Rivera (R-Miami) suddenly became an advocate against voter suppression.

"We should be careful not to overreact and potentially stigmatize the vote-by-mail process or make the process more difficult by creating obstacles to voting by mail," he said. "This would only result in suppressing the vote of Cuban-Americans, many of whom prefer or require voting by mail, and disenfranchising this critical Republican constituency to the benefit of the Democratic Party and its candidates."

According to The Miami Herald, nonpartisan groups, including the 2006 U.S. Elections Assistance Commission, noted that "absentee balloting is subject to the greatest proportion of fraudulent acts, followed by vote buying and voter registration fraud."

Rivera, meanwhile, is currently embroiled in a federal investigation for allegedly having financed a ringer candidate during the August primary with cash under the table.

(AP Photo/Alan Diaz, File)
Governor Rick Scott

Republican Rick Scott bills himself as a champion of "fair" elections, but falsely claimed fraud when signing reduced early voting hours into law. He has largely ignored evidence of absentee ballot fraud, while focusing on purging the state's voter rolls.

"I don't want to disenfranchise anybody in their voting rights," Scott said, rolling out an initial list of 182,000 Floridians who he claimed could potentially be non-citizens. Of the list, reporters and activists quickly found hundreds of natural-born and naturalized U.S. citizens. From that list, 58 percent of which was black or Hispanic, Scott fought -- against the Department of Justice -- to ultimately refer 196 people who had possibly voted illegally to prosecutors.

But though he fundraised on his "defend[ing] the right of millions of legal Florida voters to cast ballots," Scott did little when long lines formed for early voting, primarly in dense liberal-leaning pockets of Florida, creating hardship for people who were ultimately unable to cast ballots.

And though his GOP predecessors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist both extended early voting by executive order when polls were overwhelmed, Scott ignored such calls by local officials, including Monroe County's Republican Supervisor of Elections.

Despite the mess during truncated voting days and his state's punchline status on election night, the Governor still claimed "A great thing happened: 4.4 million people came out and voted either absentee or early by Election Day ... we did the right thing," before ignoring a reporter asking him repeatedly about whether he should have extended early voting (watch above).

Numbers, however, show early voting was down almost 10 percent across the state and 28 percent in Miami-Dade, where lines were longest.

(AP Photo/David Goldman)
Eric Eisnaugle
Florida House
A vocal proponent of the bill, Rep. Eisnaugle (R-Orlando) spoke of rampant voter fraud, citing voting registration examples like "a dead actor" and Mickey Mouse:

"Just go on Google, and go to the news section and you can find a pretty long list of articles documenting the fraud [Florida has] seen."

Just what an electorate wants to hear. PolitiFact deemed Eisnaugle's claims "false," noting that he omitted that his referenced instances of fraud were caught prior to any potential registration.
Dennis Baxley
Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala), the original co-sponsor of HB 1355, the bill limiting early voting, admitted on MSNBC that there was no widespread voter fraud in Florida. Instead, he insisted the bill was a preventative measure and that its attached crackdown on third-party registration "makes people more comfortable and secure."

Al Sharpton noted Florida's 14 early voting days had been essentially issue-free in 2008. "How are you going to give an improved way of voting when there was nothing wrong?" Sharpton asked. "Curing what? There was no fraud."

"We're not gonna wait for fraud," Baxley insisted. "Governments all the time are accused of waiting until there's a big problem. We don't need that. We need a clear, precise elections process that's well protected."

And when Sharpton pointed out the bill directly cut into the days black and minority voters prefer to cast ballots, Baxley dismissed the issue: "What in this bill applies differently to anyone of a difference race?"

Baxley's track record on racially sensitive issues isn't without controversy: a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, he fought for a special Confederate flag "heritage" license plate and argued against removing racially insensitive language from the state song, commonly called "Suwanee River."

"We're in a multicultural area and everyone's culture is celebrated but mine," he said.

Baxley was also the chief sponsor of Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, which critics argue can lead to racially motivated killings.
Carlos Lopez-Cantera
State Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera (R-Miami) championed HB 1355, earning a rebuke from Florida's senior congressman Sen. Bill Nelson (D).

Nelson, a former army captain, chastised Lopez-Cantera for amending the bill to make transient voters who failed to update their home address vote provisionally, a move Nelson said would have an adverse affect on military families.

But Lopez-Cantera said Nelson's claim was a "disgraceful suggestion that the Florida Legislature would attempt to diminish the voting rights of American heroes," and the amendment passed with the bill.
Carlos Gimenez
Getty Images
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez (R) saw the long lines forming across his county and heard the complaints of his constituents, yet declined to join neighboring counties and local officials in asking Gov. Rick Scott to extend the early voting period.

And when the Supervisor of Elections opened her office for a last-minute in-person absentee ballot option on Sunday before Election Day, Gimenez ordered the doors closed on the nearly 200 voters who were waiting in line. He only allowed voting to continue after waiting citizens protested, banging on the Elections office doors and chanting, "Let us vote!" as national media began picking up the story.

("Bureaucrats worry about procedures. Mayors worry about people," groused CBSMiami's veteran newsman Jim DeFede, who said the Sunday debacle revealed Gimenez to be a "bureaucrat, not a leader.")

Then, Gimenez's county suffered excruciatingly long lines again on Election Day, when the mayor drove to Brickell's overwhelmed polling station only in late afternoon to find out why the line was 6 hours long. By then, it was too late to fix much: Miami-Dade was embarrassingly behind, Florida again left America shaking its head and the last voter in line stood until 1:30 a.m. to cast a ballot, long after the presidential race had been called.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Don Gaetz
The state senator from northwest Florida argued in chamber, “We don’t want to dramatically reduce early voting,” then voted for the reduction of early voting days by nearly half.
Ellyn Bogdanoff
Then-state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff (R-Fort Lauderdale) had no qualms with expressing how she felt about voting before Election Day.

During her time in the legislature, the conservative Fort Lauderdale attorney said on record she was on a "warpath" to end early voting, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.

Bogdanoff voted for the HB 1355, but was soundly defeated for a second term this fall.

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