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It's not the 2000 recount, but voting snafus and disputes still plague Florida

Florida’s struggle to quickly report a winner of the 2012 presidential election has again made it the target of criticism that brought to mind the 2000 recount.

The presidency doesn’t hang in the ballot, as it did 12 years ago during the recount between George W. Bush and Al Gore, but that hasn’t saved the Sunshine State from scrutiny.

NBC's Chuck Todd discusses how Florida may be used as a model for the rest of the country to show how changes in demographics, particularly an influx of Hispanic voters in key counties, affected the outcome of the election.

On Thursday in Florida, absentee ballots are still being counted in three populous counties. (Under state law, counties have until Saturday to report their total vote, including absentee ballots.)

Here are the snarls and wrinkles in Florida -- some of which, of course, were not unique to the state this year:

A reduction in the number days on which Floridians could vote early
This was changed from 14 days to 8 days, even though the number of early voting hours (96) remained static. The state legislature and Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, enacted this change, which sparked furious criticism by Florida Democrats.

“The lay of the land had changed and we needed to change with it if we were going to win. To that end we instituted a very aggressive program to both increase the number of absentee ballot requests by Democrats and the number of absentee ballot returns. And we were extraordinarily successful,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party.

Litigation over voting hours
The Florida Democratic Party filed a lawsuit last Sunday to ensure that in-person absentee voting was offered on Sunday and Monday in three predominantly Democratic counties: Broward County, Miami-Dade County, and Palm Beach County.

In their filing with the federal district court in Miami, the Democrats complained about  “the prohibitively long lines at certain early voting sites within these counties. These extraordinary lines ... have required voters to stand in line for many hours to exercise their right to vote -- and in some cases have deterred or prevented voters from casting their ballots ... The lines and delays at certain early voting sites in these counties were substantially longer than elsewhere in the state.”

 “That lawsuit more than anything else drew a considerable amount of attention to that (in-person absentee voting) process,” said Chris Cate, a spokesman for Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner. “I think it caused lot more people -- rather than go to their precinct -- to go vote absentee at the (county) supervisor’s office. When you’re counting these absentees, it’s a much more extensive process because you’re having to go through and make sure the person who’s voting absentee has not already voted and you have to look at the signature and do a signature match with the signature that’s on file ... .”

MSNBC's Thomas Roberts talks to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., about why Florida's Electoral College votes still haven't been allocated days after the election.

University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus, an expert on Florida politics, agreed with that analysis. “That extra volume was really unusual but it came as a clarion call by Democrats who felt that early voting hours had not been extended enough.” This resulted in long waiting times before Election Day at some county supervisors’ offices for in-person absentee voting. 

A reduction in the number of voting locations on Election Day
It is increasingly difficult for county voting supervisors to find suitable voting locations, MacManus said, because many places are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act “and a lot of places are worried about liability. Schools are now out for the most part” -- school administrators are concerned about the potential presence on Election Day on school property of sexual predators among the voting population.

This was one factor that led to delays on Election Day in some places.

The Palm Beach Post reported on the afternoon of Election Day that a pregnant woman and her husband stood in line at a voting location in West Palm Beach “for more than two hours before she passed out and was escorted to the hospital by ambulance. The woman, witnesses say, was overwhelmed by the crowd and humidity.”

The sheer length of the Florida ballot itself, with 11 constitutional provisions for voters to mull over
“It was going to take anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes to vote and the amendments were part of the reason,” MacManus said. “There were 11 amendments and they were very wordy. I think the longest one was 700 words. Normally if citizen petitions put an amendment on the ballot, the ballot summary is limited to 75 words. But because all 11 of these were placed on the ballot by the Florida legislature they were unlimited in the number of words they could use. People knew about them (before they voted) and a lot of people prepared, but the bottom line is: it still took a while to get through this ballot.” 

The lengthy counting of absentee ballots after Election Day
Cate said the increase in the number of absentee ballots in this election was a “very significant” reason for the prolonged tallying process.

It’s vital to put the balloting in its full political context. In no state is voting ever going to be a purely neutral mathematical exercise of tallying up numbers. But in a state that both Republicans and Democrats desperately tried to win, and a state Republicans did win in 2010 – giving control of the legislature, the governor’s office and the choice of chief elections official to the Republicans -- everything about voting tends to become highly politicized. 

Asked whether Detzner has recommend any changes in voting procedures based on what the state experienced in the past few weeks, Cate said, “Not yet, but we’re going to be taking a hard look at this election and see where we can make improvements and find efficiencies. We want to make sure that as many voters as possible are able to vote, and in an efficient process. I don’t think that anybody thinks that waiting in line until midnight is an efficient process.”