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Florida's 'Obvious' Voting Problem, The Long Ballot, May Have No Easy Fix

When Gov. Rick Scott recently listed ways he thinks Florida could reduce voting difficulties and long polling lines, he drew the most attention for a change of course in suggesting that more early voting might help.

But another idea Scott raised may have more far-reaching implications for public policy in Florida, and might even be more difficult to accomplish than the politically volatile suggestion about early voting.

The 2012 ballot was several pages in many places, most notably in Miami where voters had to wade through 12 pages because of a number of local issues. It was lengthened by legislators, who put 11 constitutional amendment questions on it, some of them written out in full.

"In Miami-Dade County, the ballot read like the book of Leviticus – though not as interesting," said Senate President Don Gaetz.

In short, "it was just too long," Scott said late last year on CNN.

But in a state where the public and lawmakers have long used the constitution to get things done when the Legislature won't, and in a famously decentralized state where locals have a lot of power, could officials really shorten the ballot? And would it actually make a difference?

Scott said it was an obvious problem – taking as logical the conventional wisdom that it took voters longer to read the lengthy, complicated ballot questions. He held up the 12-page Miami ballot when he was on national TV and asserted that it took some people 40 minutes to slog through it.

The ballot was long in part because the Legislature exempted itself from a 75-word limit on ballot summaries that applies to interest groups that put forth proposed amendments. And in some cases, the entire text of the amendment was listed.

Elections supervisors said they believed it was the longest statewide ballot ever and had warned publicly before Election Day that it could take over a half hour to wade through it.

“If people wait until Election Day we’ll have lines and lines and lines,” Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent said prophetically in a story in September in the local paper.

Pasco Supervisor Brian Corley said a month before Election Day that he was "beyond concerned" about the ballot's length.

While local issues and races made it longer in some places than others, the constitutional amendments were on ballots statewide. Yet some areas faced very long lines, while others didn't, leading at least one election expert to suggest that might not have been the real problem.

University of Florida Political Science Professor Dan Smith, whose expertise is in the conduct of elections, believes the lines weren't caused by the length of the ballot – noting that even in Miami-Dade County with its biblical tome, there were major differences in lines, with people in some precincts waiting several hours and those in others getting in and out quickly.

Longer ballots probably do slow voters down some, Smith said.

"But the bottlenecks were processing people through … part of it was all the provisional ballots that were pulling people off" the line, Smith said.

Smith argues that part of the 2011 election law overhaul that required some people who had moved to a new county to vote on a provisional ballot – which can take longer – was more of a culprit than the length of the ballot.

Smith said he even heard from some students who used their time in line to read through a sample ballot, meaning they actually could vote more quickly when they got to the voting booth.

Scott and many others said it's clear, however, that a longer ballot means voters must spend more time reading.

The state may not be able to do much about local referenda or races, but the constitutional amendments – all put on the ballot by legislators – could be pared back, both Scott and Gaetz said.

Shorter descriptions of amendments should at least be on the agenda, the governor said.

"We have to look at, do we have to put the entire amendment up, or can we have a summary up?" Scott said.

Gaetz has another idea: Don't put constitutional questions on the ballot if they're not truly necessary. And he pledged that will be the case the next two years, because the Senate won't advance any but the most urgent.

"If any senator proposes a constitutional amendment while I am president the proposal better solve the constitutional problem, and it better be a big constitutional problem," Gaetz, R-Niceville, said . "One thing I can do is encourage my colleagues not to litter the ballot with causes du jour."

The 11 constitutional amendments added up to more than 2,600 words, a length which the Florida Times Union newspaper estimated took about 13 minutes to read. The ballots in Duval and Clay counties in all included nearly 4,000 words total. The paper quoted the Duval County elections supervisor as saying it took one voter 45 minutes to complete the ballot at the elections office.

It's not usually easy reading.

Consider this sentence: "Under the amendment, state revenues, as defined in the amendment, collected in excess of the revenue limitation must be deposited into the budget stabilization fund until the fund reaches its maximum balance, and thereafter shall be used for the support and maintenance of public schools by reducing the minimum financial effort required from school districts for participation in a state-funded education finance program, or, if the minimum financial effort is no longer required, returned to the taxpayers."

The words aren't necessarily hard, but the average reader who has never heard of the budget stabilization fund, for example, might require a second run-through.

A 2011 study by two Georgia State University professors that was published in Political Research Quarterly found that the often obscure and legalistic language in a lot of ballot questions requires, on average, a graduate school level vocabulary.

But Gaetz is also skeptical about broad efforts to try to shorten the ballot, noting as Smith did, that the problems weren't universal. He noted that in his home county of Okaloosa, the ballot was already shorter than in Miami-Dade and there also weren't many other voting problems.

The problems weren't just in Miami. There were long lines in southwest Florida, in Broward and Palm Beach counties, and reports that some central Florida voters in Orange and Osceola counties also waited as much as five hours to cast a ballot.

Gaetz isn't interested in trying to keep ordinary citizens, as opposed to lawmakers, from putting questions before voters, he said.

That's different from previous Legislatures, which have tried to make it harder for citizen groups, shortening timelines for collecting signatures to get ballot measures approved, for example.

But Gaetz doesn't want to make it any harder for ordinary people to change the constitution, no matter how long the ballot might get.

"It's good to check in with the people more often, not less often," Gaetz said. "I'm not at all sure the immediate answer to the elections problem of 2012 is to conclude we need to give the citizens of Florida less opportunity to speak their mind."

David Royse reports for the News Service of Florida.

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