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Waiting to Vote: Could 2012 Offer Clues on Where Floridians Will Encounter Long Lines?

Early voting is up this year among Latinos. Heavily Latino precincts had later closing times on Election Day four years ago, an indicator of long waits.

When people think of voting meltdowns in Florida, their thoughts typically turn to Bush vs. Gore and the messy aftermath of the 2000 presidential election.

But they needn’t look back that far: In 2012, almost three dozen Florida polling places stayed open more than four hours after their scheduled closing times as people waited and waited (and waited) to vote. Floridians experienced the nation’s longest delays at the polls — some were still standing on line when Republican challenger Mitt Romney conceded defeat to President Obama.

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A torrent of early voting may well lessen pressure on Florida polling places tomorrow. Overall, Florida early voting is up 32 percent over 2012 and 87 percent among Latinos, preliminary data compiled by University of Florida professor Daniel Smith shows. (Two small counties haven’t yet disclosed their numbers and votes by mail are still being counted.)

Still, if voting patterns were to echo those from four years ago, you’d expect some of the longest lines and wait times in Orange, Lee and Miami-Dade counties, where an analysis of 2012 poll-closing data suggests minorities, especially Latinos, were disproportionately affected.

Admittedly, poll-closing times are an imperfect way to measure voting delays since they may only reflect congestion at the tail end of Election Day. But researchers use this metric because it’s often the best available.

“I can tell you that I have worked the polls before and the only reason we stayed open late is because of people who were in line,” said Chardo Richardson, president of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Central Florida chapter, which includes Orange County.

After the 2012 presidential election, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University compiled poll-closing data for 17 of Florida’s 18 most populous counties, finding that counties with higher percentages of minority registered voters experienced longer voting delays. Its analysis also concluded that precincts with these demographics tended to lag behind in resources, such as numbers of voting machines and poll workers.

ProPublica used the data collected by the Brennan Center to drill deeper into where these disparities were most pronounced, comparing closing times in precincts in each county in which Latino, African Americans or whites were overrepresented.

In all but one county for which we had data, the polls stayed open later, on average, in precincts that were more heavily Latino than they did in precincts that were whiter.

The disparities were by far the greatest in Orange County, which includes Orlando. Orange County precincts that had a higher than average percentage of Latino registered voters closed, on average, 52 minutes later than whiter precincts, our analysis found.

There were also significant differences in Miami-Dade County and Lee County, which includes Fort Myers, where polls closed on average around half an hour later in precincts that had an above average percentage of Latino voters. Orange County and Lee County have seen their Latino populations increase sharply over the past 25 years.

Several forces combined to slow voting in Florida four years ago, some of which may turn out to be non-factors this time around.

The Legislature cut the early-voting period from 14 days in 2008 to 8 in 2012. The ballot included 11 potential amendments to the state constitution, totaling 3,000 words of dense legalese. The Spanish version was even longer, over 3,600 words.

On top of that, a few of the translations were off, ProPublica found. In one instance, where the English version of a statewide ballot amendment referred to “lawful healthcare services,” the Spanish version gave a garbled version of those three words; in an Orange County ballot measure, the “due date” for the submission of a county report was translated as the “expiration date” of that report.

“The poll clerk at the last place to close in 2012 — the number one thing she said over and over and over again was that the problem was that Hispanic voters were begging her and her workers to clarify what those ballot amendments meant,” said Bill Cowles, the elections supervisor for Orange County. “What happened was they were just sitting at the table taking forever to read the amendments.”

Hours after the last polling place in Lee County closed at 2:54 a.m. in 2012, elections chief Sharon Harrington promised to do better, tearing up at a press conference. “Moving forward,” she said, “I will do whatever it takes to ensure that this does not happen again in Lee County.”

This year, Harrington said voters will see a number of improvements when they go to the polls.

Most Lee County precincts had one optical scanner in 2012; now they each have at least two. Elections officials have also more than tripled the number of bilingual poll workers, assigning more than one to each voting location. This year’s ballot includes just four proposed constitutional amendments, adding up to 450 words in English and 600 words in Spanish.

Cowles said Orange County voters, too, should benefit from a ballot “half the size” of the one in 2012, as well as added resources where officials expect they’ll be needed most. “We’ve created 25 new precincts, we’ve added more check in stations, we’ve added a line walker station to pre-scan voters as they come in, and then also we’ve rented 100 extra tabulators to put in the higher turnout precincts,” he said.

Harrington understands how much rides on the changes made since 2012 in Lee County and elsewhere in Florida. Asked if long lines in her county had deterred voters four years ago, she had a concise response.

“Oh, I’m sure it did,” she said.

Hannah Fresques contributed to this report.

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