Study: In 2012, Florida voters waited the longest to cast ballots

Voters are in line at precinct 797 at fire station No. 56 in Miami-Dade County during the 2012 General Election, November 6, 2012. (Tim Chapman/Miami Herald/MCT)
Voters are in line at precinct 797 at fire station No. 56 in Miami-Dade County during the 2012 General Election, November 6, 2012. (Tim Chapman/Miami Herald/MCT) Miami Herald/MCT

Voters in Florida waited far longer than those in other states to cast their votes in the 2012 election, hampered by long ballots and cutbacks in early voting options, according to a new report by congressional auditors.

Voters in the state stood in line more than 34 minutes on average, significantly longer than ballot-casters did in any other state reviewed by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog.

The shortest waits? Alaska, at just 1.4 minutes.

Three others states had wait times about 25 or more minutes: Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina. But most of the others fell somewhere between five minutes and 20 minutes, on average.

In Florida, the GAO estimated, 16 percent of voters waited 61 minutes or more to cast their ballots – tops among the states surveyed.

“People should not have to stand in line for hours to exercise their constitutional right to vote,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said in a statement.

The report was written in response to a request from U.S. House members, including Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat from Miami Gardens, Fla., who wanted to understand the factors that contributed to waiting times in the 2012 election.

“Today’s GAO report findings are not surprising – the reduction in early voting days and lengthy ballots led to extraordinary wait times,” Wilson said.

One of the main findings was that it was difficult to really document the problem: The Government Accountability Office estimated that 78 percent of jurisdictions did not collect the data that would allow them to calculate wait times, primarily because wait times weren’t seen as a problem; beyond that, the GAO said, “most jurisdictions did not have long wait times on Election Day 2012.”

While the definition of long wait times has varied by researchers and polling officials, for the most part most voting officials said they didn’t see a problem in 2012.

That wasn’t the case everywhere.

Florida’s Lee County, the Gulf Coast area that includes Fort Myers, was one of five case studies in the report, and the supervisor of elections there described a confluence of voting problems that led to long delays.

“As this report clearly shows, it wasn’t just one issue that contributed to the long wait lines Lee County experienced, but a series of issues culminating in what we now refer to as ‘the perfect storm,’” the county’s supervisor of elections, Sharon Harrington, wrote in a letter to the GAO.

According to the GAO, the county said that a quarter of its precincts remained open more than three hours after the designated closing time. Lengthy ballots were the primary cause of long voter wait times. The ballots ran an average of eight pages and detailed 12 state constitutional amendments, as well as special district races such as fire control, mosquito control and community development districts.

The second key cause, the GAO said, was a statewide reduction in the number of days for early in-person voting, and limited locations for that voting. While total voters in 2012 dropped from 2008 levels, more of them turned out on election day itself and the county did not have enough resources to effectively accommodate them.

The county said changes made since 2012 should help alleviate such problems going forward.

Harrington told McClatchy that election officials “started almost immediately after the 2012 election looking at what needed to be fixed so that there would be absolutely no repeat of the issues we faced on Election Day.”

Given additional equipment, modifications in early-voting rules and other fixes, “things were definitely changed for the better,” she said.

The voting-time analysis comparing Florida voters with those in other states was based on a massive survey of more than 50,000 adults, conducted by the Cooperative Congressional Election Study. It included 36 states; the others were excluded because they were vote-by-mail states or because of sample-size issues.