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Florida’s Election System Disgrace: Too Few Precincts or Too Long Ballots?

| January 9, 2013

In Flagler County, Election Day went more smoothly than early voting, when voting locations were limited to two and lines stretched long after the elections supervisor decided to close the Flagler Beach City Hall location, pictured above. (© FlaglerLive)

In Flagler County, Election Day went more smoothly than early voting, when voting locations were limited to two and lines stretched long after the elections supervisor decided to close the Flagler Beach City Hall location, pictured above. (© FlaglerLive)

When Gov. Rick Scott recently listed ways he thinks Florida could reduce voting difficulties and long polling lines, he drew the most attention for a change of course in suggesting that more early voting might help.

But another idea Scott raised may have more far-reaching implications for public policy in Florida, and might even be more difficult to accomplish than the politically volatile suggestion about early voting.

The 2012 ballot was several pages in many places, most notably in Miami where voters had to wade through 12 pages because of a number of local issues. It was lengthened by legislators, who put 11 constitutional amendment questions on it, some of them written out in full.

“In Miami-Dade County, the ballot read like the book of Leviticus – though not as interesting,” said Senate President Don Gaetz.

In short, “it was just too long,” Scott said late last year on CNN.

But in a state where the public and lawmakers have long used the constitution to get things done when the Legislature won’t, and in a famously decentralized state where locals have a lot of power, could officials really shorten the ballot? And would it actually make a difference?

Scott said it was an obvious problem – taking as logical the conventional wisdom that it took voters longer to read the lengthy, complicated ballot questions. He held up the 12-page Miami ballot when he was on national TV and asserted that it took some people 40 minutes to slog through it.

The ballot was long in part because the Legislature exempted itself from a 75-word limit on ballot summaries that applies to interest groups that put forth proposed amendments. And in some cases, the entire text of the amendment was listed.

Elections supervisors said they believed it was the longest statewide ballot ever and had warned publicly before Election Day that it could take over a half hour to wade through it.

“If people wait until Election Day we’ll have lines and lines and lines,” Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent said prophetically in a story in September in the local paper.
Pasco Supervisor Brian Corley said a month before Election Day that he was “beyond concerned” about the ballot’s length.

While local issues and races made it longer in some places than others, the constitutional amendments were on ballots statewide. Yet some areas faced very long lines, while others didn’t, leading at least one election expert to suggest that might not have been the real problem.

University of Florida Political Science Professor Dan Smith, whose expertise is in the conduct of elections, believes the lines weren’t caused by the length of the ballot – noting that even in Miami-Dade County with its biblical tome, there were major differences in lines, with people in some precincts waiting several hours and those in others getting in and out quickly.

Longer ballots probably do slow voters down some, Smith said.

“But the bottlenecks were processing people through … part of it was all the provisional ballots that were pulling people off” the line, Smith said.


Lines at the library location in Palm Coast stretched long during early voting, but there was a dearth of voters on Election Day. (© FlaglerLive)

Smith argues that part of the 2011 election law overhaul that required some people who had moved to a new county to vote on a provisional ballot – which can take longer – was more of a culprit than the length of the ballot.

Smith said he even heard from some students who used their time in line to read through a sample ballot, meaning they actually could vote more quickly when they got to the voting booth.

Scott and many others said it’s clear, however, that a longer ballot means voters must spend more time reading.

The state may not be able to do much about local referenda or races, but the constitutional amendments – all put on the ballot by legislators – could be pared back, both Scott and Gaetz said.

Shorter descriptions of amendments should at least be on the agenda, the governor said.

“We have to look at, do we have to put the entire amendment up, or can we have a summary up?” Scott said.

Gaetz has another idea: Don’t put constitutional questions on the ballot if they’re not truly necessary. And he pledged that will be the case the next two years, because the Senate won’t advance any but the most urgent.

“If any senator proposes a constitutional amendment while I am president the proposal better solve the constitutional problem, and it better be a big constitutional problem,” Gaetz, R-Niceville, said . “One thing I can do is encourage my colleagues not to litter the ballot with causes du jour.”

The 11 constitutional amendments added up to more than 2,600 words, a length which the Florida Times Union newspaper estimated took about 13 minutes to read. The ballots in Duval and Clay counties in all included nearly 4,000 words total. The paper quoted the Duval County elections supervisor as saying it took one voter 45 minutes to complete the ballot at the elections office.

It’s not usually easy reading.

Consider this sentence: “Under the amendment, state revenues, as defined in the amendment, collected in excess of the revenue limitation must be deposited into the budget stabilization fund until the fund reaches its maximum balance, and thereafter shall be used for the support and maintenance of public schools by reducing the minimum financial effort required from school districts for participation in a state-funded education finance program, or, if the minimum financial effort is no longer required, returned to the taxpayers.”

The words aren’t necessarily hard, but the average reader who has never heard of the budget stabilization fund, for example, might require a second run-through.

A 2011 study by two Georgia State University professors that was published in Political Research Quarterly found that the often obscure and legalistic language in a lot of ballot questions requires, on average, a graduate school level vocabulary.

But Gaetz is also skeptical about broad efforts to try to shorten the ballot, noting as Smith did, that the problems weren’t universal. He noted that in his home county of Okaloosa, the ballot was already shorter than in Miami-Dade and there also weren’t many other voting problems.

The problems weren’t just in Miami. There were long lines in southwest Florida, in Broward and Palm Beach counties, and reports that some central Florida voters in Orange and Osceola counties also waited as much as five hours to cast a ballot.

Gaetz isn’t interested in trying to keep ordinary citizens, as opposed to lawmakers, from putting questions before voters, he said.

That’s different from previous Legislatures, which have tried to make it harder for citizen groups, shortening timelines for collecting signatures to get ballot measures approved, for example.

But Gaetz doesn’t want to make it any harder for ordinary people to change the constitution, no matter how long the ballot might get.

“It’s good to check in with the people more often, not less often,” Gaetz said. “I’m not at all sure the immediate answer to the elections problem of 2012 is to conclude we need to give the citizens of Florida less opportunity to speak their mind.”

–David Royse, News Service of Florida

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6 Responses for “Florida’s Election System Disgrace: Too Few Precincts or Too Long Ballots?”

  1. Seminole Pride says:

    I do not see why in this day of technology, we should not be able to just log in on the computer and vote on line I have heard that this not secure way, but I disagree. We can do our banking, buy and sell stock, and do all of our personnel business with our computer or cell phone, but we can not vote. It just seems so out dated to go to the local voting precinct and stand in line for hours just to get the opportunity to vote. Their are many who still work that can not take time off to do this.think of the benefits and money that could be saved.We could get the results faster instead of in Florida’s case not knowing how our state voted for almost 3 days. Voting is one of the most important task a citizen can do. Lets encourage voter turn out by making it more convenient.

  2. I Voted says:

    Lines in Flagler were minimal and they moved pretty quickly. Those that voted by mail didn’t wait in line at all.

  3. Deep South says:

    In this day of technology, I can not the method we still use to cast our vote. It is so behind the times. We should be able just to go on line or use our cell phone to vote. On Election Day I was not looking forward to going to the polls and voting, because of having to go through the process of standing in line, and giving information just to be able to perform my civic duty. I thought about those in Miami and Orlando where some people had to wait almost all day to vote. Some say that it would not be safe to allow those to vote using access to their computer, or cell phone, but I disagree. We use our computers, and cellphones to do our banking, buying and selling stock, and other personnel business. We correspond with Doctors and Lawyers via the internet, but we can not vote.Hopefully before the next election we will be able to vote with our computer or cell phone, just by making a few clicks.

  4. Joe says:

    Palm Beach County, FL had a 141% voter turnout., the National SEAL Museum, a polling location in St. Lucie County, FL had a 158% voter turnout also in St. Lucie County, FL, there were 175,574 registered
    eligible voters but 247,713 votes were cast. Who cares

    • Magnolia says:

      We have to show a driver’s license to cash a check, see a doctor, buy a drink, get on an airplane, enter a hospital, get a passport and for many other reasons. We no longer have free elections here and our elections officials look the other way.

      Allow third world practices to continue and we will soon become a third world.

      Our current system is not working. It is not honest and it is being taken advantage of. It’s time for something new, beginning with accurate IDs and inspections of voter rolls.

      We are all being cheated.

  5. roco says:

    It’s been a disgrace for years. Remember the hanging chads between Bush and Gore. You would think after twelve years something would have been done.. We’re the laughing stoke of of the USA when it comes to elections..

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