Miami-Dade County elections workers count absentee ballots in Doral, Fla., on Wednesday.
(Photo: Alan Diaz, AP)
William M. Welch, USA TODAY
A dozen years after the 2000 presidential vote-count debacle, the nation again was left waiting for Florida on election night. And the day after.
Unlike the hanging-chad disputes that turned the Bush-Gore presidential race into a tortuous legal tangle that went to the Supreme Court before the presidency was decided, this time the whole world isn't watching. Florida, a huge battleground state, turned out to be non-essential - President Obama was able to build an Electoral College majority without it.
But for the people of South Florida, some of whom waited as long as seven hours in line to cast a vote, another ballot meltdown is frustratingly familiar.
What's wrong with Florida when it comes to voting?
Charles Stewart, an MIT political scientist who is co-director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-CalTech voting technology project, says election problems in Florida are like the old computer joke about problematic software: "It's not a bug - it's a feature.''
Florida, he says, has taken steps since 2000 to modernize and improve its voting systems, but they remain plagued by poor management, lack of capacity and systemic dysfunction. The system manages to work in most counties but seems to fail repeatedly in the biggest ones where the population is large and diverse.
The failures are more human than technical, he says. Florida's elections are run by supervisors who are in most cases elected officials themselves rather than non-partisan professionals.
"Supervisors continue to be highly autonomous ... and with some important exceptions are more political operatives than they are professional managers,'' says Stewart, who grew up in Orlando and has studied the state's voting systems.
Long lines prompted polls to stay open in some parts of South Florida until midnight or later.
"There's no hanging chads or butterfly ballots, but there's still a question mark looming over the map of Florida,'' says Kendall Coffey, a Florida attorney who represented Al Gore during the Florida recount battle in 2000.
Elections officials defend their management.
Suzy Trutie, spokeswoman for Miami-Dade County, blames the number of voters and a complex 10-page ballot. The county has 1.3 million voters and saw more than 405,000 show up on Election Day and another 237,000 vote during eight days of early balloting. She said election workers spent Wednesday trying to verify and count 210,000 absentee ballots.
She also blames voters, saying some took as long as 40 minutes to complete the ballot before feeding it into a scanner. "The reason we had long lines ... was the length of the ballot and how long it took each person to fill out the ballot," she says.
Aside from making the nation wait to learn which candidate won Florida's 29 electoral votes, the delay affected a closely watched congressional race.
Republican Rep. Allen West, a conservative Tea Party favorite, charged "disturbing irregularities'' in his re-election balloting and asked a judge Wednesday to seize ballots and voting machines. He was trailing Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy by less than a percentage point in a still-undecided race.
Stewart says heavy volume is no excuse for Florida's voting woes. Other parts of the country, such as Southern California, have larger voting populations and more foreign languages to contend with. He says Florida needs to professionalize its elections management, increase access to polling places, adopt best practices used elsewhere and expand absentee and early voting.
Contributing: Stacey Bardenger, Florida Today