Was there a record voter turnout in 2012?

A few days after the election, a CNN reporter asked Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner about long lines and other problems in Florida on Election Day: “How could this happen in 2012 in a state in the United States, that people would wait six hours and many would just abandon and not vote at all?”

Detzner responded that there were two reasons for the long lines. First, Florida had a long ballot — 11 constitutional amendments — on top of the presidential election and local races.

Second, he said, turnout “was unprecedented. It was a record year of turnout. More people voted before Election Day using absentee ballots and voting early than ever before in our history.”

We decided to check the numbers to see if Nov. 6 really was a “record,” both for overall turnout and pre-election day voting.

This week, Detzner plans to make a fact-finding trip to five counties that had some long lines and other election problems, including Miami-Dade, where voters stood in line for as long as seven hours. Broward is also on that list — the county found 963 ballots after Election Day, but the supervisor said that they weren’t actually "lost."

By the numbers

Florida’s general election turnout for 2012 was about 71.2 percent.

This was no record. Statistics starting in 1954 show Florida’s general election turnout exceeded that 11 times, including in 2004 and 2008. The highest turnout was 83 percent in 1992, when Bill Clinton won his first presidential race.

But Detzner was referring to the sheer number of voters, not the percentage of voters who participated, said Chris Cate, Florida Department of State spokesman. In 2012, nearly 8.5 million people voted, the highest number of voters who have ever participated. Looking at 1992 — the year that had record-high turn-out — Cate noted that about 5.3 million Floridians cast a ballot, which is about three million fewer than this year.

This is partly due to Florida’s population growth. The state population was 13.7 million in 1992 but grew to 19 million in 2011 (the most recent data available).

We also looked at the numbers on absentee and early voting. Florida began offering absentee ballots to everyone — not just those who could prove they were out of town or in the military — in 2002. The state began offering early voting in 2004.

In 2012, about 4.8 million Floridians cast ballots early or absentee, more than either 2008 or 2004, so Dentzner was correct on these numbers.

We sent Detzner’s claim to several political science professors who study elections and asked whether it is more relevant to compare turnout percentages or raw numbers, particularly when examining why we had election problems and how to fix them.

“In the end, it is the total number of people that show up that creates the lines and counting delays, not the percentage,” said University of Central Florida professor Aubrey Jewett.

Despite large increases in early voting between 2004 and 2008, a Republican-led state Legislature voted in 2011 to cut back the number of days for early voting. Republican Gov. Rick Scott refused to extend early voting in 2012.

Our experts said the Florida Legislature was responsible for reducing early voting days, limiting early voting locations and placing 11 amendments on the ballot. Decisions by local officials about training, equipment and staffing also contributed to Election Day problems.

“Overall, there is plenty of blame to go around for our voting problems at both the state and local level,” Jewett said.

Susan MacManus, a University of Southern Florida professor, said the more relevant information is what happened on a local level, in the counties that had the long lines or problems. “I don’t ever like to use aggregate statewide figures when you have concentrated areas of problems,” she said.

Many problems occurred in South Florida, for example, where turnout increased only slightly.

In Miami-Dade turnout dropped from about 70 percent in 2008 to 67.6 percent in 2012. The number of voters increased only slightly, by about 16,000. Miami-Dade faced a shortage of temporary workers and equipment, and the county decided to delay a plan to redraw precincts to reduce crowding.

Broward had a bigger dip in turnout percentage but a similar increase in voters — and again, that doesn’t explain problems, such as finding 963 ballots in the elections warehouse after Election Day.

Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes told the Sun-Sentinel that her office "got thrown off its game" with a lawsuit that allowed in-person absentee voting the Sunday and Monday before Election Day, days that were meant to prepare precincts and tabulate absentee ballots."

The ruling

In fact-checking Detzner’s statement, though, he’s right that the sheer number of voters was a record, at 8.5 million. Also, he’s correct that more people “than ever before” voted early or absentee. But it was not the highest turnout by percentage. We rate Detzner’s claim Mostly True.