In Florida, not every precinct is created equally
When it comes to voting in Florida, not every polling place is created equally.
Some Florida polling places have more than 8,000 registered voters assigned to them while others are only an eighth of that size.
The result can be a wide variation in how many voting booths and scanners are available to voters in their given precinct. That can create unequal opportunities for voters, based on where they live, if there are long lines like the ones Florida voters experienced on Election Day last week.
"I've been voting since 1978 and I have never in my entire voting time felt like my vote was not wanted as I felt last week," said Mary Luz, a Cape Coral real estate agent who waited more than four hours to vote on Election Day in Lee County on Florida's Gulf Coast. "They made it incredibly difficult to cast my ballot."
Last week, lines were especially long in Broward, Lee, Miami-Dade and Orange counties, and voters in Lee and Miami-Dade cast ballots even after Republican challenger Mitt Romney had conceded to President Barack Obama. County election officials blamed the Florida Legislature for shortening the number of early voting days and an unusually long ballot that included the full text of 11 state constitutional amendments.
Unlike some other states, Florida lacks a statewide standard for the ratio of voters to voting stations or voters to ballot scanners. New York restricts the ratio to no more than 800 registered voters per station. Pennsylvania sets a range of 300 to 400 registered voters per station, depending on the type of election. Ohio recommends a ratio of 175 registered voters per station.
In Orange County, home to Orlando, the ratio of non-handicapped voters to station ranged from 665 to 112 at the start of Election Day, although elections office workers drove around with some 300 extra voting booths and distributed them throughout the day when requested by poll workers. And some precinct workers, seeing large crowds, set up tables for voters to cast their ballots if they didn't mind a lack of privacy.
Miami-Dade calculates a ratio of 70 voters per voting station but that's based on an assumption that only a third of registered voters show up on Election Day, even though two-thirds of the county's registered voters cast their ballots this past election either by going to their precincts, early voting or by absentee ballots. When all registered voters are included in a precinct, the non-handicapped voting booth ratio ranges from 456 to 289, according to an Associated Press analysis.
Election officials in Broward and Lee counties were unable to provide ratios when requested by AP.
A study of Virginia election data from 2004 by University of Michigan political scientist Walter Mebane showed a decline in turnout when the ratio of actual voters per station was greater than around 350 or 400. But a follow-up analysis using 2008 election data showed the figure could be as low as 225 voters per machine.
"At some point long lines, specifically long waiting times to vote, cause turnout to decrease because voters who can't wait give up and leave," Mebane said in an email.
Following the troubled 2000 presidential election, the Florida Legislature required counties to use an optical scan system that requires voters to fill out their choices with a pen on a paper ballot, which is then fed by the voter into a scanner. The ratio of scanners to voters in each precinct also varies widely, and some voters like Cathy Kerns said they waited as long as an hour and a half to scan their ballot even after they had waited for hours to enter the polling place.
"I could see where people were leaving," said Kerns, who waited three hours to get a ballot and then an hour and a half to feed it into the scanner at her Orange County precinct. "People were there to vote but they could not continue to stand ... Are you going to lose your job so you can vote?"
A 2006 survey by New York City elections officials found the average ratio was 1,402 voters per scanner in the nation's most populous counties that used optical scan systems.
In Orange County, the ratio of scanners to registered voters ranged from 5,150-to-1 to 1,116-to-1 on Election Day, depending on the precinct. In Lee County, the ratio was roughly one scanner for no more than 3,500 actual voters, Elections Supervisor Sharon Harrington said.
Miami-Dade calculates a scanner ratio of one for every 473 voters but again that's predicated on only a third of voters showing up on Election Day. If all registered voters are considered, the ratio ranges from 1,673 to 866 in polling places that only have a single precinct.
Broward was unable to provide figures.
Absentee ballots and early voting alleviated congestion at some Florida precincts. More than a quarter of Florida voters voted absentee, and another quarter cast their ballots early at voting stations. A statistical analysis by AP shows a relationship between early voting and the size of a precinct. For every increase of 2.2 registered voters in a precinct, there was an increase of one voter who cast a ballot before Election Day either by early voting or sending in an absentee ballot, the analysis showed.
"It was a combination of factors that lead long to wait times, not just the sizes of the precincts," said Harrington in Lee County.
Orange County Supervisor of Election Bill Cowles blamed the long lines on the "curveballs" the Republican-led Legislature threw elections supervisors by cutting early voting days, restricting where early voting sites could be located and the amendments. Cowles had expected higher early voting based on 2008, when more than half of Orange County voters cast their ballots before Election Day. Instead, just under 40 percent of Orange County voters cast their ballots before last week, and more voters than expected showed up at their precincts on Election Day.
An analysis of Orange County precincts shows differences by race and ethnic background in the number of voters in each precinct in one of the largest counties along Florida's politically-important Interstate 4 corridor.
In Orange County, the average number of registered voters assigned to each precinct was 3,042. Majority Hispanic precincts had a higher average - 3,575 registered voters - than either majority black precincts or supermajority white precincts. The majority black precincts averaged 2,938 registered voters and the precincts where more than 80 percent of residents are whites had an average of 2,144 registered voters.
Voters are assigned to precincts so that those in the same precinct vote for the same set of elected officials. Elections officials also want to keep neighborhoods together. But the goal of making precincts equal often is complicated by gerrymandering efforts in the redistricting process which often requires precincts to be nestled into specific congressional or state legislative districts. Gerrymandering is a practice of drawing districts to favor either a political party or voters of a particular racial and ethnic background.
Cowles said he would love to have more voting booths and scanners at precincts but it's hard to justify purchasing the equipment when turnout in nonpresidential elections can be as low as 20 percent of registered voters, and equipment vendors may change in four years. He suggested election machine vendors should be more willing to rent the scanners for high-volume elections instead of requiring them to be purchased.
"I'm afraid to ask my county commission to buy more equipment for a presidential election four years away when I can't trust that the vendors will still be in business," Cowles said.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.