Monday, March 4, 2013

Long lines at polls caused 49,000 not to vote

David Damron and Scott Powers, Orlando Sentinel
December 29, 2012,0,215136.story

After working a 10-hour shift on Election Day, painter Richard Jordan headed to his east Orange County polling place at about 4:30 p.m. Based on more than a decade of voting, he expected to be in and out in minutes.

Three hours later, Jordan's back ached, he was hungry, thirsty — and nowhere near a voting booth. So he left. As it turned out, his Goldenrod Road precinct didn't close until 11 p.m.

"The line just wasn't moving," said the 42-year-old Democrat, who added that he now regrets not voting. "It was so depressing."

Like Jordan, as many as 49,000 people across Central Florida were discouraged from voting because of long lines on Election Day, according to a researcher at Ohio State University who analyzed election data compiled by the Orlando Sentinel.

About 30,000 of those discouraged voters — most of them in Orange and Osceola counties — likely would have backed Democratic President Barack Obama, according to Theodore Allen, an associate professor of industrial engineering at OSU.

About 19,000 voters would have likely backed Republican Mitt Romney, Allen said.

This suggests that Obama's margin over Romney in Florida could have been roughly 11,000 votes higher than it was, based just on Central Florida results. Obama carried the state by 74,309 votes out of more than 8.4 million cast.

Allen's first analysis of the impact of long lines at the polls was done in 2004, when he estimated that more than 20,000 voters in Franklin County, Ohio, where Ohio State is located, were discouraged from casting ballots in the razor-close contest between President George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry. He has continued his research in every election since.

His analysis of Central Florida results compared precinct closing times, Election Day turnout and results in the presidential race — which attracted the highest vote totals of any race on the ballot — for all Lake, Orange, Osceola and Seminole county precincts.

His review indicated that for every additional hour that a precinct stayed open past 7 p.m. — a good indicator of line length throughout the day — turnout dropped by as much as 4.8 percent. The precincts with the longest lines, he found, had some of the lowest turnouts, a fact he attributed mostly to a record-long ballot that, in Orange County, ran to six pages.

As Allen put it in a report to the Sentinel: "Without understanding the importance of ballot length as a variable, it would be surprising to see from the data from 2012 in Central Florida that lower turnout was recorded in the locations with the longest waits. This is because longer ballots (not higher turnout) likely caused the longer lines which, in turn, suppressed the turnout."

Florida's long lines and late results have drawn unfavorable comparisons to the Sunshine State's 2000 presidential election problems, and state and federal lawmakers are pledging again to address it.

"Look, people are frustrated in our state," Gov. Rick Scott said recently on CNN. "Some of our counties, we have very long lines. You know, we've got to restore confidence in our election."

A previous Sentinel analysis of precinct-closing times and demographic data found that thousands of Central Florida voters waited in line at their polling places for three or more hours — some as long as five hours — after the 7 p.m. official closing time. Even longer waits were reported around the state.

There were few long lines in Lake and Seminole counties. But in Orange and Osceola, where lines were longest and voting ran latest, precincts with high percentages of Hispanic voters were most likely to be open late, the previous Sentinel analysis found. Allen's findings mirror that, he said.

Allen said that his Ohio analyses found that both Hispanics and blacks were disproportionately more deterred because of the longer lines in their communities. However, few black Central Florida precincts stayed open late.

Elections officials blame the lines on several factors, from a ballot that included 11 constitutional amendments to fewer early-voting days and an outsized turnout of 67 percent or more in all four counties. But there are also indications that new state rules about address changes and the ballot layout in Orange County were factors.

Allen suggested that expanding early-voting and mail-in ballot options and steering more machines and resources to communities with longer ballots could ease long lines. Even enabling people to preview ballots while they stand in line would save time in the voting booth, he said.

"A $100 poster could be worth two voting machines," Allen said.

Democratic activists such as Orlando's David Rucker said he saw a fierce devotion among voters to weather long lines to counter efforts by Republicans to limit early voting.

"They had to stay in those lines," Rucker said.

But many Central Florida voters faced unyielding work schedules, child-care issues or other demands. They could not wait out lines that sometimes stretched around blocks.

Carol Dishong went to her east Orange County precinct at 7:30 a.m. on Election Day, saw a long line and no empty parking spaces, and decided to come back after work. But the Republican loan underwriter and single mom said it was even worse when she returned. Next time, she said, she'll vote early or absentee.

"My days are full as it is," Dishong said.

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