Elections supervisors under fire

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Legislators unsure about solving voting problems

COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS

TALLAHASSEE – Local supervisors of elections came under fire Tuesday as lawmakers began probing what went wrong in the 2012 elections, with state officials singling out five who reportedly deserve special scrutiny for their performance.

Early voters in Broward County waited in line at the African-American Research Library in Fort Lauderdale on Election Day. (CHARLES W. CHERRY II / FLORIDA COURIER)

Secretary of State Ken Detzner told lawmakers he would visit supervisors of elections in Broward, Lee, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties as part of his own inquiry into the lengthy lines and other problems that plagued the November balloting. Detzner said he would also meet with the Hillsborough County supervisor of elections, whose performance is not under fire.

Lines ‘unacceptable’
In many locations, voters stood in line for several hours waiting to cast ballots, and the state wasn’t called for President Obama until several days after the election ended.

“Long lines are unacceptable in Florida for performance,” Detzner told a state Senate panel, one of two legislative committees taking up the election performance Tuesday.

Speaking to meetings of both the House and Senate ethics and elections committees, Detzner said he didn’t want to prejudge what had caused the breakdowns at some polling locations in the state. But he offered a menu of possibilities.

“When you look at underperformance, it could be an administrative issue, it could be an issue about judgment about turnout, could be an issue about locations of the early voting sites, it could be manpower issues, and it could be technology,” Detzner said.

He also indicated the length of the ballot, which included several legislatively-authored proposed constitutional amendments, could have caused some of the long waits.

Early-voting problems
Attention also fell on the number of early-voting sites that were open in some areas after those lines also swelled. A staff analysis showed a wide disparity between the number of voters per early-voting site in Florida’s 12 biggest counties.

Pinellas County, for instance, opened only three early voting sites, which equates to one per 210,506 voters. Duval had the lowest average, with 17 voting sites and 30,501 voters per site.

Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties all had more than 62,000 voters per early-voting site. But so did Orange County, at 69,478 voters per location, though the department or lawmakers for problems didn’t single it out.

In Miami-Dade, there are 82 locations that could be used for early voting; 20 were. That led to some lawmakers wondering whether Detzner should be given more authority to step in when local supervisors seem to make wrong-headed decisions.

“If you have 83 or 85 sites available and you only open up 20, we might need to look at who’s making those decisions and based on what criteria,” said Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.

Look hard at sites
But Ron Labasky, general counsel of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, responded that the association has been pushing for years to be allowed to use a wider variety of sites for early voting. He said that some sites might not be ideal.

Speaking later in the day at the House meeting, though, Detzner said the state should weigh that issue carefully. “We should find out, are they using all sites that are sufficient and available within their inventory of available sites,” he said.

It’s not clear what legislation might grow out of the meetings. Sen. Jack Latvala, the St. Petersburg Republican chairing his chamber’s committee, brushed off the idea of giving Detzner greater control over local officials. But he did note that governors have suspended supervisors of elections over performance.

“I’m not prepared to say that there’s an occasion here where I think that might be merited, but I think that that’s a question that ought to be asked in one or two of these cases,” Latvala said. “When a county every single election has problems, then you can’t blame a new law or you can’t blame the Legislature; you have to look within that county.”

Asked at one point if he was talking about the infamously troubled efforts of Palm Beach County, Latvala said: “If the shoe fits, Palm Beach County should wear it.”

Massive numbers
In Miami-Dade, the elections supervisor was delivered 56,000 absentee ballots on the two days leading up to the election, Nov. 5-6.

“Validating the signature is not just something that’s done by putting ballots in a machine. It’s a manual process. … ” Detzner said. “In this election with record turnouts, one has to recognize there are deadlines that were met by all but one county.”

Labasky said he didn’t have the budgets for processing votes earlier or opening more locations. In the Miami-Dade alone. “That’s 400,000 pieces of paper that have to be looked at and verified,” Labasky told senators. “The time consumption is tremendous.”

Nearly 8.5 million votes were cast this fall. And for the first time, more voters cast absentee and early ballots than voted on Election Day, Detzner said.

Aaron Deslatte of the Orlando Sentinel (MCT) and Brandon Larrabee of the News Service Of Florida contributed to this report.

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