Top state elections officials review Broward voting problems

If Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes had one word to summarize what she needs to reduce long voting lines in the future it would be “flexibility.”

That means flexibility in terms of early voting locations, days and hours.

That was the message Snipes delivered to Secretary of State Ken Detzner at a meeting on Wednesday at the county’s Voting Equipment Center in Lauderhill.

Broward used 17 early voting sites but “the space in all but three of those sites are inadequate...,” Snipes said. “We as supervisors of elections in large districts, knowing our districts, need to have the flexibility to make these adjustments.”

The meeting was part of Detzner’s five-county tour of counties that he said “underperformed” in the November election. Detzner visited Miami-Dade Tuesday. The other counties are Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Lee. He kicked off his tour in Hillsborough Monday as a benchmark county.

When asked what she thought about Detzner saying that Broward "underperformed," Snipes said: "I let him know that I didn’t appreciate that. It was wrong to put a label on an organization like that." She added that such a label can undermine voter confidence.

Detzner said that "Broward did a good job" and didn’t have the “excessive” lines that other places had. When asked why he had said Broward “underperformed,” Detzner said that was due to long early voting lines.

Early voting sites should be able to handle 400 to 500 voters per hour, Snipes staff said during the meeting, but the sites generally weren’t sufficient for such big crowds. During early voting, the average number who voted per hour ranged from 80 at Wilton Manors City Hall to 218 at the Southwest Regional Library in Pembroke Pines.

Noting the high volume, Detzner said “You can’t process enough people per hour, if you can’t you are going to have long lines.”

Detzner said that he has heard a consistent message from counties that they want flexibility in terms of early voting sites.

“People talk about one size doesn’t fit all,” he said.

Detzner asked Snipes about the number of days and hours she would like to see for early voting. Snipes said that she preferred the 14 days allowed before the Legislature passed H.B. 1355 in 2011 that limited it to eight days.

“I like the 14 days, and I like Sunday before the election,” Snipes said. She mentioned that African-American churches in the past organized “Souls to the Polls” to encourage church-goers to go to early voting after church on the Sunday before election day. But that day of early voting was eliminated by the Legislature. She also said some voters prefer that day simply because they “wait until the last minute.”

“When you have something and take it away it creates issues,” Snipes said. “My preference would be to have 14 days.”

But Snipes said if she had the full two weeks and more flexibility in terms of sites she could accommodate early voting in a 10-hour day rather than 12 hours. In reality, that still can mean longer than a 10-hour day because voters in line at closing time still get the opportunity to vote.

Another challenge was the lawsuit that resulted in voters being allowed to cast in-person absentee ballots on the Sunday before election day — an unexpected development that the county couldn’t plan for.

“We had at points in the day 300 people lined up...,” Snipes said. “That was really unfair at the last minute.”

Detzner said that he was hearing a lot of common issues in the counties — especially the length of the ballot, which contained 11 constitutional amendments.

Voters can expect even more wordy questions in the future because of a forthcoming state law that any ballot initiative must contain the full text of a constitutional amendment or revision including stricken or underlined text.

Though the wording on state questions was complicated, the ballot didn’t generally grow in length in Broward. In 2008, due to county questions — and in some cities local ones — the ballot was about four pages, or eight sides. The ballot was generally the same length in 2012 — but it had those complicated statewide constitutional amendments.

After the meeting, Detzner did not indicate what he will recommend to Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature, saying that he was in Broward to “listen and learn.”

Another wrinkle this year: sluggish mail service. In the past, Broward delivered absentee ballots to the post office in Oakland Park and watched them being process there. This year, as a result of cutbacks at the post office, those ballots were then transferred from Oakland Park to a post office in Opa Locka to process the ballots, Snipes’ staff said. That appeared to slow down the process and led to voters calling in asking why they hadn’t yet received their ballots.

Broward election officials met with post office officials during the election season but “they couldn’t really give us a good answer what was happening...,” said Mary Hall, who works for Snipes.

Snipes said “maybe we need to approach Fed-Ex and UPS.” She also said after the meeting that she plans to approach the county commission to ask for more money for additional equipment.

After the school board completes redistricting in 2013, Snipes said she will consider whether to redraw precincts. But Snipes said that in heavily populated western Broward, shifting voters from one precinct to another one nearby only shifts the long lines — it doesn’t eradicate them.

One issue that didn’t surface during the meeting was that county election officials found hundreds of ballots in the Voting Equipment Center after election day. Snipes said that while the media “made it seem we were crawling under tables and chairs” to find ballots, that wasn’t the case. She has previously said that the ballots were not “lost” and “found.” Detzner said in an interview he didn’t ask about it because he was satisfied with what he has heard from Broward and said that it has happened elsewhere.

Several state legislators attended the meeting including Sen. Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood), who formed a Broward elections task force. That task force plans to put together a report that it will send to the Legislature.

For several years, Broward has talked about building a new headquarters for the Supervisor of Elections. The Broward County Commission is expected to discuss early next year two potential sites and once it settles on a site it will take about two years to build, said Alphonso Jefferson, assistant to the county administrator. The county has set aside about $15 million for the project but the exact amount isn’t known.