Voter suppression and Florida’s butterfly effect

Edgar Oliva waited to vote at Shenandoah Elementary School and fretted.

The line was too long. The clock was ticking. He had to get to work across town.

Twice before, during in-person early voting, he tried to vote but he had to leave because lines were even longer. Tuesday was his third try at voting in between one of his two jobs, cleaning carpets in Doral and working at an airport hotel.

About 4 p.m. on Election Day, he gave up.

“I had the intention of voting but there were always a lot of people,” Oliva, a native of Guatemala, told a Miami Herald reporter as he left the scene.

Oliva had so much company on Tuesday.

Voter after voter who spoke to Herald reporters on Election Day said the longer early voting lines dissuaded them from casting early ballots in person. And then the unexpected long lines on Election Day just compounded the sense of frustration in some places. Many dropped out of line.

The experience played out across the state. Data show the 71.13 percent turnout percentage in 2012 fell well short of the rates in 2008 (75 percent) and 2004 (74 percent).

In 38 of 67 counties, fewer people cast a ballot for president this time than in 2008.

Only 80,351 more people voted now than in 2008 even though the voter rolls increased by 686,812, according to the latest numbers from the state’s elections division. The vote totals will change slightly as provisional ballots are counted.

Relatively speaking, Florida in 2012 moved backward when it came to voting.

If the statistics and the experience of voters like Oliva are not evidence of voter suppression, then we’ll need to change the definition of “suppressant” in Webster’s dictionary: “an agent (as a drug) that tends to suppress or reduce in intensity rather than eliminate something (as appetite).”

Tuesday showed the appetite was there.

But the government wasn’t.

The chief suppressant: HB1355, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in 2011.

The law shortened early voting periods. And it created a longer ballot by giving lawmakers the ability to print the entire text of proposed constitutional amendments because the courts kept rejecting the Legislature’s ballot summaries as misleading.

Early voting was shortened to prevent a repeat of 2008, when Barack Obama won Florida, largely on the strength of early voting. So Republicans cut early voting days from 14 to eight. And they loaded amendments on the ballot, which stretched for at least 10 pages in Miami-Dade.

The other voter suppressant was local: a lack of enough voting booths and ballot scanners in some precincts. That’s controlled by each county’s supervisor of elections.

Bottom line: there was less time to vote a longer ballot without adequate equipment this election.

There were a significant number of early votes — 2.4 million — and almost as many absentee ballots, 2.35 million. Together, the early and absentee ballots account for about 56 percent of those cast this election.

Republicans typically prefer absentee ballot voting. So it wasn’t touched by HB 1355. Democrats prefer in-person early voting. That’s what the Republican Legislature and Scott cut.

Some Republicans have said that those who complain about long lines have no excuse, that they should have voted by absentee ballot.

But some voters don’t trust the mail. Indeed, more voters than ever this year complained they never got their absentee ballots or received them too late. Also, if a person’s on-file signature doesn’t match the signature on his absentee ballot, it can be rejected. Voters won’t know until after the election that their vote didn’t count. So there are those who don’t trust absentee voting because they can’t be on hand to defend their ballot, their right to vote.

A number of those voters who didn’t receive the absentee ballots they ordered wound up in early voting lines. And they waited. Some left. Some came back. Some left again.

Many discouraged from voting early or absentee showed up on Election Day. But the lines were so horrendous in some precincts that voters left. One woman fainted.

“I can’t wait any longer,” another woman, who had been waiting in line for hours at South Kendall Community Church, said before she left without giving her name.

The long early voting lines discouraged voters like Alfie Fernandez, a mother who works from home. She twice tried to vote early in person but left each time after waiting a cumulative five hours.

On Tuesday, she showed up at West Kendall Regional Library and spent 10 hours in line. Just to vote.

“It’s this particular precinct,” Fernandez said. “It’s a disaster.”

The last vote at the precinct was cast by an unidentified woman at 1:08 a.m., after Republican Mitt Romney conceded the national race. Florida wasn’t called until after the fact, on Saturday.

It was all a stark example of a Florida elections butterfly effect, the idea that something small like the beating of a bug’s wings can ultimately affect a large storm.

Thanks to the 2000 “butterfly ballot” that confused voters in Palm Beach County, Florida became ground zero for elections meltdowns. Palm Beach County had 30,000 spoiled ballots cast by confused voters in 2000 due in great part to the bad ballot design. Duval County’s lesser-known “caterpillar ballot” — which crawled from one page to another – helped lead to another 26,000 spoiled ballots.

George W. Bush won Florida — and therefore the presidency — by 537 votes that year. Incidentally, the official turnout rate was 70 percent, a point less than this year’s.

The 2000 election fiasco made clear the importance of ballot design on elections. Twelve years later, ballot design is a major culprit again.

But technology, too, is to blame.

After 2000, the state banned the use of punch-card ballots, which were used in large counties because they were easier to vote and easier to count quickly. Big counties then began using touch-screen voting machines, which allow people to quickly vote and officials to quickly tally those results.

But touch-screens had no paper trails and, in the 2006 congressional race to replace former Secretary of State Katherine Harris (of 2000 election fame/infamy), thousands of votes appeared to be lost.

A year later, Crist insisted that a recalcitrant state Legislature scrap touch-screens in favor of a paper-trail system, notably the fill-in-the-blank optical-scan ballots.

Unlike punch-cards and touch-screens, opti-scan ballots take a relatively long time to fill out. Voters want to make sure they’re properly bubbling in their choice. A low-tech device like a ball-point pen can mean more time voting as well. In Miami-Dade, voters used ball-point pens, which take longer for a voter to bubble-in a choice when compared to marker-like pens, which voters get to use in Leon County.

The first statewide presidential election with opti-scans across Florida, in 2008, showed that the technology made for longer lines.

Seeing the long lines in South Florida in 2008, then-Gov. Charlie Crist extended early voting for a cumulative 120 hours. South Florida used every minute of it then.

This year, Scott refused. He kept the period at 96 hours — an effective cut of 20 percent — despite lines with wait times of more than seven hours.

Republicans then crowed that President Obama wasn’t getting the same level of Democrats to the early polls than he did in 2008. Had early voting been open for 24 more hours, the previous 14-day record would have been broken in 10 days. Obama won Florida by less than a percentage point; he carried Florida in 2008 by 2.8 percentage points.

Republicans also opposed the idea of extending early vote days, saying Scott shouldn’t break the rules. Few mentioned that Scott actually changed the rules in the first place by signing HB1355.

Since the election, Scott’s secretary of state, Ken Detzner, has acknowledged that counties need to be given more of an opportunity to expand early voting to sites beyond their own offices, city halls and libraries. He hasn’t commented on whether the days and hours need to be as they were in 2008.

Similarly, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has admitted problems with this election and said more early voting sites are needed. Gimenez has voiced some support for using the Miami Marlins stadium, which is a publicly owned building, for early voting. Unlike many of the county’s early voting sites, the stadium has enough parking and could allow people to sit and grab a hot dog while they wait.

Unlike his fellow Republican Scott, Gimenez has called for a return to 14 days and 120 hours of early voting.

Scott eliminated the Sunday before Election Day voting, when black voters (overwhelmingly Democrat) cast ballots after church. In 2008, South Florida had two full weekends of early voting. This year, the final Sunday was eliminated without adequate explanation.

Republicans have denied on the record that HB1355 was motivated by partisanship, but privately some GOP lawmakers have acknowledged it was so.

One of the architects of 1355: Emmett “Bucky” Mitchell IV, who represents the Republican Party of Florida, according to court records unearthed by The Palm Beach Post. Mitchell, incidentally, helped produce a flawed list of suspected felons that might have purged some lawful voters from the rolls in 2000 when he served under Katherine Harris at the Secretary of State’s office.

HB 1355 also cracked down on voter-registration drives, something I said in a previous column wasn’t really an act of voter suppression. A court tossed the provision. Liberals have also called Scott’s effort to purge noncitizen voters from the rolls an act of “suppression,” but there’s not much evidence there, either.

Other factors that could have suppressed the vote: the negative campaign, the candidates and the tough economic times that left voters disillusioned. Indeed, some counties that had lower turnout did not have lines that were as long as they were in South Florida, where more people voted than in 2008 -- albeit at lower rates.

But in listening to voters and looking at the numbers, it’s clear that the reduction in early voting days helped suppress the vote.

Scott repeatedly said the state “did the right thing” this election. Scott also says he wants more lawful people to vote. Separately, he has inveighed against government regulations. Yet he implemented government regulations that suppressed the vote.

On Saturday, Scott issued a statement boasting about the “record” turnout of nearly 8.5 million people. He neglected to mention that the turnout rate declined on his watch compared to 2008.

“We need to make improvements for Florida voters and it is important to look at processes on the state and the county level,” Scott said, declining to note any details.

The day before, on Friday, he made no apologies, according to an article from Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau.

“What I’m trying to do is improve the way government works,” Scott said. “I believe in efficiency. I believe every vote has to count. I want to have a good process that people feel good about.”

Few people who spent hours in line felt good about it.

Many voters were in and out quickly. But those voters tended to be relatively well off and employed in jobs that allow for more flexible hours. Blue-collar workers like Oliva, who was thrice-thwarted from voting, didn’t have that luxury.

Not only was Election Day in Florida bad for Oliva, it looked bad for democracy. It was bad for Florida’s deserved reputation of Flori-duh when it comes to elections. It was bad for Scott’s image. And it was bad for Scott’s own party.

After all, Oliva said he would have voted for the Republican, Mitt Romney.