By Nick Raffaele:
At this point, most everyone is familiar with Florida’s comically pitiful track record when it comes to administering elections. The state certainly earned this reputation when it suffered what is probably its most notorious voting disaster in 2000, and Broward County in particular has consistently maintained poor performance ever since. The county was a standout in 2000 when it used lackadaisical standards in reviewing contested punch card ballots containing dimpled chads, and even included these unclear votes in their certified results. Broward doubled down on their anything goes attitude towards elections in 2003, when they sent mail-in ballots to voters who had moved and sparked fear of fraudulent votes.
After the county had problems with punch card and mail-in ballots, Florida hoped that electronic voting might solve their ills. Not so, as Broward County’s electronic voting machines reportedly had issues with losing votes, according to a 2003 audit. Eventually, the state adopted the voting system that is still in use, replacing their electronic touch screen machines with optical scan paper ballots. But the return to paper ballots could not mitigate Broward County’s propensity for calamity, as almost one thousand ballots were found in a warehouse in the county after Florida had reported its final count in 2012.
This poor record attracted the scrutiny of state election officials, who visited Broward County among other local jurisdictions in a fact-finding mission regarding Florida’s myriad problems administering the 2012 election. Democratic politicians seized on the opportunity to blame the party in control, suggesting that expanding early voting would help ease the administrative struggles of Florida’s counties on election day. Despite the political pressure, early voting hours have not expanded, and Broward County has found itself in the spotlight of yet another Election Day mishap in Florida.
Florida’s 2014 election cycle was certainly an active and hotly contested event. Voters took to the polls to choose between incumbent Governor Rick Scott and Republican-turned-Democrat challenger former governor Charlie Crist. Voters also had the opportunity to voice their opinion on a hot button issue, as medical marijuana graced the ballot in the form of a proposed constitutional amendment. Record numbers of voters (for a non-Presidential election year) turned out to vote early, but the preparation was not enough to take the pressure off of one of Florida’s most storied jurisdictions. According to the Crist campaign, Broward County voters were disenfranchised by malfunctioning electronic voter identification machines (a device that accesses the registration database and is used to verify voter information such as address, status, and signature), polling places that were shut down for 90 minutes at a time, misinformation regarding the correct polling location for certain voters, and 30 minute long lines that remained after the precincts has closed.
The Florida Democratic Party filed an emergency motion for ex parte injunctive and declaratory relief late in the day on November 4, 2014, asking the Court to extend polling hours in Broward County through 9:00 p.m. The motion cited Florida’s recent redistricting among the causes of voter confusion, although it also alleged mistakes by poll workers as contributing to the turmoil. The move was almost certainly politically motivated, as Broward County was a stronghold for the Crist campaign. However, the judge denied the motion and Rick Scott emerged the victor of the election by a narrow margin.
While the lost votes would not likely have influenced the outcome of the election, this scuffle certainly has implications for Florida election law. Broward County will remain the black sheep of the state, as legislators continue to wrangle with Florida’s election demons. Many of the issues that the Democratic motion raised will likely be focal points of debate for election reform in Florida, including voter identification, redistricting, and early voting. After the 2014 election, the state seems to have a new test case to learn from as it looks forward to the administration of what will absolutely be a significant Presidential election in 2016.