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Waiting for Florida, again

A dozen years after the Sunshine State held the nation hostage with an electoral meltdown, it still can't quite get it right. This time, at least, the presidency doesn't hang in the balance.

November 07, 2012|By Joseph Tanfani, Washington Bureau
  • Miami-Dade County Judges Andrew S. Hague, left, and Shelley J. Kravitz, right, check absentee ballots as clerk Jean Horne looks on in Doral, Fla. State election officials expect to know the outcome in the presidential contest by Saturday.
Miami-Dade County Judges Andrew S. Hague, left, and Shelley J. Kravitz,… (Alan Diaz, Associated Press )

MIAMI — Not so long ago, in the days of the hanging chad and the butterfly ballot, a nation was held hostage by one state's electoral dysfunction.

On Wednesday, America once again woke up the morning after election day to reports of voters in South Florida standing in line at midnight, tens of thousands of absentee ballots still unopened and uncounted, and no way of knowing who won the state's 29 electoral votes. Unlike Bush vs. Gore in 2000, at least the whole election isn't hanging in the balance, but the question is the same:

Just what is it about Florida and elections, anyway?

"We're such an embarrassment," said Tya Eachus of Miami, a financial analyst who said she waited in line for three hours Tuesday. "It's always a fiasco with us."

With 8.3 million votes in, President Obama held a 46,000 vote lead, about half a percent. Election workers were busy counting thousands of absentee ballots, many of which piled up over the weekend. And, mindful of the confusion of election night 2000, no one seemed eager to call it one way or the other until all the votes were in.

Chris Cate, a spokesman for the state elections department, said results are due by noon Saturday.

The meltdown at some polling places climaxed a long and troubled election season for Florida. There were fights over a proposed voter purge by Gov. Rick Scott, and a hotly contested law pushed through by Republicans in the Legislature that restricted early voting hours.

In Palm Beach County, where the double-sided butterfly ballot baffled voters in 2000, an absentee ballot was misprinted, forcing election workers to recopy thousands of votes by hand. In Pinellas County, 12,000 voters got robo-calls from the elections department mistakenly telling them they had until Wednesday to hand in their mail ballots.

There may have been some fraud in the mix, too: A voter registration operation financed by the Republican National Committee ended in a criminal investigation, with possibly bogus forms showing up in 10 counties.

Then came early voting. Encouraged by a Democratic field operation, voters turned out in legions to get their votes in before election day. With voting days reduced from 14 to eight, the lines were blocks long, particularly in Miami, as voters lingered over ballots larded with complex constitutional amendments and local questions. It was a sign of trouble to come.

"Oh, it was terrible," said Maria Dominguez, who works as a volunteer at the UTD Towers on a palm-lined waterfront boulevard in Miami. "People were screaming. We said, there's elderly people in this building. You can't say that in here."

Michelle Alva said she got there before the polls opened — and waited four hours. She brought along a book, "Love Is Letting Go of Fear."

"I read the whole book in line," she said. "I was enlightened by the time I left."

John Camp, an attorney affiliated with a nonprofit coalition called Election Protection, said most of the county's workers struggled mightily to keep the lines moving. Still, he said, there were problems with poll workers who gave out the wrong instructions, and hundreds of people who were wrongly turned away or left the long lines before ever casting a ballot.

"I agree, it does seem like we don't ever seem to get it right," Camp said. "Even though we keep trying."

joseph.tanfani@latimes.com

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