TOPICS > Politics

Long Lines and Ongoing Vote Counts Among Election Day Problems

November 8, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
After the confetti and commotion have cleared, what election troubles remain to be cleaned up? Ray Suarez talks to political writers Marc Caputo of the Miami Herald and Curt Anderson of The Associated Press talk about several hour-long lines at high volume poll stations and precincts that haven't yet finished their vote tallies.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For many Americans, casting their ballots on Tuesday came after hours and hours of waiting.

Ray Suarez looks at what happened on Election Day and why.

RAY SUAREZ: Overall, fewer voters went to the polls on Tuesday than in 2008, but there were long lines anyway in a number of states.

WOMAN: I’m actually late for work right now, and it took about two hours. The lines were just all in shambles. It was crazy.

RAY SUAREZ: Officials blamed a lack of voting machines and poll workers.

And even President Obama took note in his victory speech.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time — by the way, we have to fix that.

RAY SUAREZ: Some of the worst delays were in Florida, where voting lines ran up to seven hours in parts of Miami.

But under state law, any voter who arrived before closing time was allowed to cast a ballot. And in this Miami suburb, the last vote wasn’t cast until just after 1:00 a.m. That was five minutes after Gov. Romney began his concession speech in Boston.

Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez apologized to voters, but he insisted officials had done all they could.

MAYOR CARLOS GIMENEZ,Miami, : We had a very long ballot. It was the longest ballot in Florida history. Were there problems in certain precincts? Without a doubt.

RAY SUAREZ: And the county elections department said it was simply a numbers game.

PENELOPE TOWNSLEY, Miami-Dade election supervisor: It’s the volume.

And we’re managing it very effectively. We will not rush this process. We will make sure that every vote is counted.

RAY SUAREZ: Late today, election workers across Florida were still counting thousands of absentee ballots. Delays mean the presidential result has not been made final. Counties have until Saturday to report their results to the state, which will then confirm who gets Florida’s 29 electoral votes.

For more on the ongoing ballot counting in Florida and the sluggish voting elsewhere, we turn to Marc Caputo, The Miami Herald’s political writer, and Curt Anderson of The Associated Press. He’s been tracking problems in polling places across the country.

And I know conditions varied from place to place, Curt, but what were the main drivers of the really long waits to cast a vote?

CURT ANDERSON, The Associated Press: Well, in the case of Florida, as your piece mentioned, one of them was the very long ballot that we had, which included a number of very complicated constitutional amendments that probably took people a lot of time to read.

There was also — even though turnout as a whole was down in the presidential race, in certain places, turnout was very high.

And part of that had to do, I think, with the Obama campaign’s ability to get minority voters out to the polls. He did very well in places where that has traditionally been the case. And there was a lot of enthusiasm to vote.

As your piece mentioned, there were people standing in line well after President Obama had been reelected, the networks had projected it, in any case, and they still wanted to cast their vote because of that enthusiasm.

RAY SUAREZ: Marc Caputo, we saw a supervisor of elections say that the problem in South Florida was volume.

But, if two-thirds of your customers showing up makes the system collapse isn’t that system inadequate, by definition?

MARC CAPUTO, The Miami Herald: Well, it’s not really even two-thirds.

It might have been about half. And we have a lot of early voting and absentee ballot voting that happens throughout the state. About half the electorate had voted by then. And this only happened at certain precincts.

And it seems as if, in some of them — well, this is according to voters who actually voted at them — there weren’t enough machines to read the ballots and there weren’t actually enough privacy booths to vote your ballot. This year, we also had an unusually long ballot, which slowed people down as well.

You add all those things together, not enough booth space, not enough scanners, lots of people who want to vote and a long ballot, and it makes for a long wait time.

But we had early voting and we had a hybrid of early voting that stretched for almost a month before, and the officials probably should have known about this, and they didn’t.

And so you had people waiting in line for seven hours on an Election Day. That’s an entire work day that some people lost.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Marc, a slow vote has yielded a slow count. In several Florida counties, they’re still counting ballots now. Why?

MARC CAPUTO: Because they have so many ballots that have poured in. In Miami-DadeCounty, you had people who went by their precinct and said, my God, I can’t wait that long. So they went to supervisor’s headquarters and got an absentee ballot and then voted the absentee ballot at the supervisor’s headquarters. Those poured in, about 54,000.

So they just finished going through that volume now — or they’re finishing going through that volume now. I don’t want to speak too soon because there are a bunch of ballots still left to be counted in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

I think DuvalCounty, which is the Jacksonville area, is just about done, if not done. Now what is left are what are called provisional ballots, which are a little different.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Curt, the day began in Arizona with half-a-million ballots still to be counted there and some very close races.

Have we evolved a hybrid system that includes more liberal absentee, more liberal early voting, various ways to vote, but we haven’t kind of caught up with where we’re going as a system?

CURT ANDERSON: No, that’s true.

Many of the experts I have talked to about this say one of the problems is that you have a very fragmented voting system. You have 50 states and you have a federal government. The states can enact policy, the federal government can enact policy, but the elections are carried out at the local level, county level, towns, cities.

And they all have a little bit of autonomy on what they can do. So you have a very fragmented and disparate system out there, which means that people don’t get enough voting machines to the places that they need to get them to. They run out of volunteers. They have people oversleep and forget to open up at 7:00 a.m.

There are a whole range of these types of problems that it’s very difficult to solve.

The president mentioned in his speech that we have to fix that in terms of the long lines when he was giving his victory speech, but it’s a very difficult issue to tackle on a completely 50-state basis, just because of the thousands of different jurisdictions that we have.

RAY SUAREZ: But when you show up at a restaurant and they tell you it’s an hour-and-a-half wait for a table, you can eat somewhere else. Often, you can’t vote anywhere else.

CURT ANDERSON: That’s right.

Then you’re looking at — this happened in Memphis, Tenn. We even talked to some — there was long lines there as well.

And there was a teacher who we spoke to who had lived in the same place for 30 years, and when he went to the poll that he had gone to for almost all that time, his address didn’t match up, so he had to cast a provisional ballot, which is one that you cast in many states that is subject to some question whether it’s accurate or not.

And he was concerned that maybe his vote wouldn’t count. Why was his address not matched up after all these years? It’s a mystery. No one can explain it. This type of thing happens across the country from time to time, and people get disenfranchised because of it.

RAY SUAREZ: Marc, the Help America Vote Act after the 2000 election which brought so much perhaps unwanted attention to Florida and its voting woes was supposed to clear some of this up, but it seems not to have changed all that much in the last decade.

MARC CAPUTO: Well, what changed is the technology. The Help America Vote Act was done after the 2000 election debacle in Florida. We used punch card ballots at the time.

The advantage of punch cards ballots is you can vote them quickly and they can be tabulated quickly. After the state banned punch card ballots, we went to touch-screen machines, almost like an iPad, where you can vote. You punch your vote on the screen.

But there was no paper trail. And then in an election in 2006, a congressional race, there were some missing votes, it appeared, so the state scraped that high-tech technology.

Then they went to this optical scan machine. These are like fill in the bank like kind of a Scantron test sheet. Those take longer to fill out and they take longer to count.

So what’s changed partly is the technology. And now when you have big counties like Miami-DadeCounty, BrowardCounty, Palm BeachCounty — Miami-Dade alone has about 1.3 million voters.

If you have everyone voting on those sheets of paper, and our ballot ranged up to 10 pages long, it takes a while simply to cast a ballot.

And then you have the elections workers who have to feed it through machine, and then it takes a while to tally it. So that’s — the biggest change is the change in that technology.

And then in our state, we limited early voting compared to 2008. In 2008, we had 14 days. In 2012, it was eight days of early voting.

Gov. Charlie Crist in 2008 extended early voting hours for a cumulative of 120 hours. Governor Scott refused to do that this time, so we had a cumulative 96 hours. So for South Florida voters, largely urban, we had 20 percent fewer hours to early vote.

That pushed the volume into Election Day, and then the rest kind of snowballed into more long lines and more frustration.

RAY SUAREZ: Marc Caputo joining us from Florida, Curt Anderson here in Washington, thank you.

CURT ANDERSON: Thank you.