October 23rd, 2008
04:53 PM ET

Why the long lines in Florida

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/10/23/art.florida.lines.jpg caption="People stand in line to vote early Wednesday in Pompano Beach, Fla. Unprecedented numbers of early voters in the South are prompting local election officials to take measures to make people comfortable as they wait for hours to cast their ballots."]
Paul Gronke
Director, Early Voting Information Center at Reed College

The first two days of early voting in Florida have not been kind to the Sunshine State. Already, elderly voters are having difficulties filling out ballots in Palm Beach County (the same county that produced the infamous butterfly ballot in 2000). Duval and Leon Counties are having problems feeding the ballots into the optical scanners. And voters throughout the state are experiencing long lines, sometimes multiple hours long.

It's not that Florida elections officials are not trying hard–I have met a number of local and state elections officials, and they are dedicated public servants who really just want to get the election
right. I have seen no evidence of a conspiracy to subvert the democratic process.

But what I have seen is a tendency among state leaders to respond *too* quickly to election breakdowns, adopting new technology and rejecting old technology without learning the lessons of the past.

This year, the problem that Florida is experiencing with long lines could have been anticipated. To the credit of state officials here, they decertified their electronic voting machines because voter confidence in the machines had reached rock bottom. But in their desire to move to a paper-based system, Florida adopted a relatively new and untested technology: "ballot on demand." Glitches associated with ballot on demand are the cause of most of the problems this year.

Ballot on demand means when you walk into a polling station, you can get the right ballot that shows all the candidates and offices you're suppose to vote on. And that's a lot harder than it looks...

Think about how we conduct elections in the United States. We vote for MANY offices. Your friends in a neighboring town very likely vote for different state, county, and local offices, so they need different ballots.Election officials call these "ballot styles," and some counties have to manage literally hundreds of different ballot styles in a single election.

This is not a problem when everyone votes in a local precinct, but early voting creates "super precincts," where voters from many places cast ballots in one central location. This means that Joe needs to vote on ballot one, and Jane on ballot two, and James on ballot 127.

If you have an electronic machine, it's easy to provide different ballots. If you are voting on paper, you need to have a ready supply of all the different ballots or, in Florida's case, try to print each ballot when the voter shows up.

In a recent report on Florida's primary, Conny McCormack, previously the clerk-recorder in LA County, estimated that getting the ballot in front of a voter in Florida took 2-3 seconds under the old system, and 60-90 seconds under the new system. That extra minute and a half didn't cause much concern in the primary, but multiply those minutes by thousands and thousands of voters, and you have long lines.

This is a case where good intentions ended up leading to bad results. Florida officials should have anticipated these lines. And they should have put systems in place to reduce the wait. By the next
election, they probably will. What would be a mistake is once again overreacting and once again dramatically reforming their election system.

Editor's note: Paul Gronke is a professor at Reed College http://www.reed.edu/~gronkep

Filed under: Paul Gronke • Raw Politics • Voting
soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. Court

    Lucy- I'm weary of Christ myself and other republicans. Thank goodness the lawyers of both parties have already been dispatched down here to Florida. I can already smell the fear of voting here in Florida. They should have never put another Republican in the Gov's chair after Bush.

    October 24, 2008 at 10:57 am |
  2. Stacy

    I have already voted in Palm Beach County Florida........... Yes folks, that's right and I had no problems!!! I waited 2 hours and voting was quick, efficient and easy. You need to expect to wait since voter turnout is expected to be so big. It wasn't bad, everyone was friendly and polite and now i'm done............ta da!

    October 24, 2008 at 1:27 am |
  3. Marie Thomas

    You should come and see our voting system in Canada. It is very easy to vote. You bring your voting card and identification and you vote.

    It is very simple with few problems. It really works.

    Ontario Canada

    October 24, 2008 at 1:26 am |
  4. Rod

    Long Lines in Florida? I'm pretty sure the plumbers are at it again, at least I smell a plumber. Wasn't it Nixon that loved plumbers too? If I was McCain, I'd drop the Joe the plumber bit. Interesting how the GOP has a thing for plumbers? I vote by mail in ballot. Pretty simple and a hard copy of your vote. Electronic voting machines can't be trusted. BTW I voted for Obama. With Haloween right around the corner, I already have enough to be frightened of, let alone the thought of 4 more years of GOP government.

    October 24, 2008 at 1:21 am |
  5. Dena, Tampa

    I spent 2 hours in line today, and less than 2 minutes to actually vote. I'm so glad I didn't have to wait until election day ... I can only imagine how long the wait will be then!

    October 24, 2008 at 1:14 am |
  6. Elma

    Just vote by mail...it's that simple...Geez!

    October 23, 2008 at 11:54 pm |
  7. Marco Cruz, Hillsboro Tx

    Whoa!!!! If you don't want the to spread the WEALTH around you better get in line as soon as possible!!!!!

    October 23, 2008 at 11:36 pm |
  8. MJ Gornick

    Too bad Oregon has such a well kept secret. My husband and I sat down with a glass of wine yesterday evening and voted at our kitchen table (the infamous political kitchen table we have all been sitting at this year). He dropped our mail in ballots in the box this morning. I do miss going to the polls but I don't miss the hassle any more. We just watch all you people in the other states with your machines and your glitches, while we have another glass of wine.

    October 23, 2008 at 9:14 pm |
  9. Lucy

    All the problems in Florida have been while the Republicans are in power. Governor Crist is a Republican. This is a very anti-Republican climate. It been on the news that Florida's stringent voter fraud laws may disenfranchise many new voters. It is amazing that these screw ups keep occuring. Are the Republicans totally incompentent in voting standards and reform ...or is there just no incentive in for the Republicans for fair voting practices. I guess I am a cynic....but I remember the verdict was that Gore really did win the Florida vote.

    October 23, 2008 at 8:49 pm |
  10. Adriana R Maxwell Marrietta,Ga

    Its so funny considering all the delays in getting votes in. I doubt any fraudester would waste their time in line.

    October 23, 2008 at 8:26 pm |
  11. Tim Spring Hill, FL

    I thought the old joke was "the only thing big in Texas was the egos"?

    Florida tried in 2000, asking the U. S. Supreme Court to allow the vote counting standards be followed that Gov. G.W. Bush signed into law in Texas. But they ruled that was not fair because it would cause Bush the election. I guess that the only process that works is the one that lets your candidate win.

    Before you call the Florida voters stupid maybe you should move to a state where there are citizens who live off of the radical right.

    October 23, 2008 at 8:19 pm |
  12. Jim

    I like Brazil's idea. You register and get a plastic card that you can put in any ATM machine. When you enter your pin number the ballot comes on the screen and you cast your vote.

    October 23, 2008 at 7:58 pm |
  13. Marylou

    Optical scanners are nice, easy and leave a paper trail. When I lived in Brevard county, Florida, that is what we used, and never had a problem

    October 23, 2008 at 7:41 pm |
  14. Rose from Muscoy

    I don't trust Electronic Voting some have had problems of voters saying that their vote was changed from Obama to McCain. They need to have paper trails. What's really going on?

    October 23, 2008 at 7:40 pm |
  15. Robin

    I live in the Tampa Bay area, looks like I'll have to use some vacation time 😀

    October 23, 2008 at 7:18 pm |
  16. Bev Lindenhurst, IL

    Wow, here we go again. Voting should be simple and one should be able to just GO VOTE but I guess not. It may be time to demand a receipt when one votes. It sounds great but we may be stuck with these ridiculous games again. Wise up Floridians and fix your system

    October 23, 2008 at 7:02 pm |
  17. chris in tulsa

    I think the word unprecedented is in the description of the numbers of people showing up... not that anyone would not have guessed that it is going to be like that all across the country. The lesson learned is, give yourself lots of time to vote, even if you need to take the day off.. don't miss this chance to vote.

    October 23, 2008 at 6:49 pm |
  18. suki

    As a Florida voter who voted today, I could not have been more impressed the process – my polling place had chairs for everyone to sit while waiting, free water and special considerations for those with disabilities – voters were let inside 5 at a time since the space was rather small – It took only 20 minutes to enter the facility – once inside it took only a few seconds at the station to process my identification and was then handed my ballot – once completed you were directed to another station to scan the paper – all in all 35 minutes

    The best was seeing the voters – a true representation of America – diverse in age, ethnicity and gender

    October 23, 2008 at 6:23 pm |
  19. Ray F

    I live in a well-to-do city near Los Angeles, California, and I have never waited more than 10-15 minutes to vote, usually just walking in and voting. I'm wondering if class or where one lives has anything to do with these long lines. Is it to purposely discourage people from voting?

    October 23, 2008 at 6:20 pm |
  20. Gary Chandler in Canada

    Just put 100 test votes, in each machine, for each candidate and see if the Results go up by 100 for each!!!

    October 23, 2008 at 6:18 pm |
  21. R White

    Let's just go back to the old lever machines that you walked into and the curtain pulled around you. I never saw a problem with thoses.

    October 23, 2008 at 6:16 pm |
  22. jean in Minnesota

    Be prepared for very very long lines on Election Day. And be prepared to stay the duration to vote! Try to take the day off work if that's possible. Bring a lunch, book, blanket, chairs – Think things like you'd bring to be comfortable at a parade. Have a neighborhood voting party – with neighbors who've voted bringing refreshments to those in line. Make Election Day a fun, rewarding, friend and neighbor filled day.

    October 23, 2008 at 6:15 pm |
  23. Patrick, Belfast, Ireland.

    It beats me that the best, old – fashioned, and the most effective system of voing is the straight " X " on a ballot paper. That way unlike the charade in Florida in 2000, a recount can be called – for and to be accomplishedas the ballots will be in bunches of hundreds and easily counted . Electronic machines are open to abuse, and if the results are wiped at the press of a button, no recount can be carried – out. Ballot paper is a lot cheaper and open. Countries just as sophisticated as the USA still use ballot papers that are stored after an election ( for a month ), which can be checked straight – away. These elections are much too important and involves the futures of tens if not hundreds of millions of people.

    October 23, 2008 at 6:05 pm |
  24. Mary V., Salt Lake City, UT

    Wonderful to see America out VOTING!

    Yes, VOTE EARLY!

    October 23, 2008 at 6:02 pm |
  25. lori from fort lauderdale

    I was in line on Monday for 2 hours, 40 minutes. 3 minutes to actually vote. 2 hours, 37 minutes in line doing my civic duty -priceless.

    October 23, 2008 at 5:51 pm |
  26. Doug

    My wife and I voted on Tuesday, October 21 at the Weston, FL branch library. The wait was reasonable and the process very smooth. I think it is good that the voting started early. If any kinks do show up, this gives the election people plenty of time to fine turn the process. The 60-90 seconds was more like 2-3 seconds, definitely not more than 10 seconds. As for the technology being too new: I'm not sure that printing a ballot, completing it like an Iowa achievement test and then using scanners to read the ballot is new (I far as I know variable printing has been around for at least 25 years, scanners for 20 to 30 years, pencils and ink pins for 150 years. This is not new science and does provide a reliable paper trail. I think things will become smoother and smoother until perfection is reached by election day, or at least as close to perfection that humans are capable.

    October 23, 2008 at 5:48 pm |
  27. JRQ La Habra, Ca

    I already voted by mail in California. I wonder why Florida and all the States do not. We can save a lot of money. Think of all the substitute teachers on election day with no jobs. But that is still a savings of almost $90 an hour.

    October 23, 2008 at 5:37 pm |
  28. sharon from Indy

    I have worked as a clerk for over 10 years and it is not as simple as it seems. The problem is that every county, every precinct, can use a different voting system. It is ludicrous! And when a new county clerk is elected in, the whole system can change, again.

    Remember, the election process is done locally, which is good and bad. Good in that citizens have control within their neighborhood on how their ballots are cast. It is bad in that when it goes to the final state ballot bundles, it is chaos.

    I am a firm believer in electronic ballots as long as there is a paper trail.

    October 23, 2008 at 5:32 pm |
  29. A Garcia

    Kissimmee Fl

    Both candidates championed campaign REFORM. However it seems like OBAMA BOUGHT himself the presidency via the very 'special interests' he said he hopes to REFORM(yeah right) His pants are on fire. Face it the president spot is for sale and the media is 100% on the hook for the Obama. Including CNN except Lou Dobbs but more obvious with MSNBC(junk TV). Obama is an unknown that talks a good game, period. Sorry, his associations with the wacky dangerous friends are enough for me not to want him as a nieghbor… but he has bought your votes now you smoke him.

    October 23, 2008 at 5:32 pm |
  30. Annie Kate

    It would be nice if some product testing group would test all the various forms of voting we have in this country and come up with a ranking of which is best to which is worse and let the states choose 1 from the top 2 or 3. Uniformity in the method of voting would go a long way to giving the voter the confidence that their vote got in and was counted and they didn't waste all that time standing in line for nothing.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    October 23, 2008 at 5:15 pm |
  31. J Ponder from MD

    You think these lines are something, just wait till Nov 4th. I feel sorry for anyone who thinks it will be a walk in the park, on election day.

    Dont be stupid Vote early.
    Dont be stupid Vote early.

    October 23, 2008 at 5:14 pm |
  32. Cindy

    Hey..there are long lines everywhere for early voting. It's just something people will have to live with. If you think they are long now wait until election day. They predict here in Georgia that the lines will have a 4 to 6 hour wait and we use electronic voting and no papers to have to fool with!


    October 23, 2008 at 5:12 pm |
  33. Jim Blunk

    The old joke was who's dumber than a Florida voter?

    The new joke this year is: Who's dumber than a Florida voting official? Answer: No one.

    Why don't they go to a state that has done it right and just copy what they do?

    Jim in Mesquite, TX

    October 23, 2008 at 5:12 pm |