‘Florida, Florida, Florida’ – It’s time to modernize the voting process

Marsha Shearer

“One person, one vote. May not apply in certain states.” Author unknown 

“We’ve had too many problems through too many (election) cycles.”  Bill Galvano, Florida’s Republican Senate President-designate

Each year, Florida has just 60 days to write and pass legislation to improve the lives of its citizens and to secure funding to implement that legislation. Hopefully, members of the Legislature will use that time to focus on the state’s most important needs.

After watching “Florida, Florida, Florida” again become a national joke, this legislative session provides the opportune time to prioritize modernizing the voting process.

Aging and outdated voting machines have proven to be a problem in many states, though Florida certainly seems to have the lion’s share of the problems.

In an interview with The Phoenix Newsletter, incoming Senate President Galvano, R-Bradenton, said he wants to address election reform. He talked about problems with voting equipment and rejected ballots because voter signatures didn’t appear to match those on file.

All that is true. But fixing these problems doesn’t solve the bigger one – an outdated, costly system that will continue to generate problems. A very expensive lipstick applied to an outdated pig of a system perpetuates the problem – it doesn’t solve it.

Here’s a glance of where we are now, just in terms of voting machines:

  • Machines are old and need replacement. After the 2000 election, most Florida counties – there are 67 of them – bought new machines, but 18 years later, their age is showing. According to the Brennen Center for Justice, one Florida county had to buy replacement parts from eBay because the manufacturer no longer made them. In the case of the overheated machine in Palm Beach County, the company that made that particular equipment is no longer in business. And that makes maintenance and parts replacement almost impossible.
  • The cost of replacing these machines statewide is astronomical. According to Time.com/money, in 2016 an estimated cost of a basic voting machine was $2,500 to $3,000 – and it skyrockets from there. At least one machine is required for each precinct and there are hundreds and hundreds of voting precincts in the state. Sumter County alone has 26 precincts, and if every machine was replaced at the low end of the 2016 estimates, that’s $65,000. And we’re one of the smaller counties. (FYI: no amount of trying yielded even an approximation of the number of voting precincts in the state. I’ll take anyone out to lunch who can document that number).
  • According to the Time.com article, every precinct needs at least one special optical scanning device, which costs about $6,000. Now multiply that by that elusive number of precincts in Florida. States do receive some financial assistance through the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) to purchase new equipment but the majority of costs are borne by the states.

    The cost of replacing voting machines is high, with the basic piece of equipment in 2016 costing $2,500 to $3,000 – and it skyrockets from there.

We’re talking millions of dollars just to replace machines. Then there’s payment to poll workers which, when you figure five to six people per precinct, times the number of early voting days with each poll worker earning an average of about $300, times the number of precincts – well, it’s costly.

Here’s an example: In 2017, the Broward County Supervisor of Elections had the equivalent of 72 full-time employees, with a total expenditure of $18.2 million (Business Insider). Yet, it’s clear that even with this budget and that many people, problems remained.

And there are procedural issues in Florida that contribute to what appears to be incompetence. Almost all Supervisors of Elections are, themselves, elected politicians with limited training or expertise in this area. For some, it’s the place defeated or term-limited legislators go to die. The state should look at changing these critical personnel to civil service employees.

But even with that change, the system, itself, is the primary source of the problem.

Oregon, Colorado and Washington State have vote-by-mail-only systems in place, thereby eliminating the need for costly voting machines. California, Arizona, Montana, Hawaii, Utah and New Jersey are considering moving to that type of system.

So here’s a suggestion. The Florida Legislature should consider a vote-by-mail-only system. The mechanism for it already is in place – with each passing election, more and more Floridians use it – and like it.

You receive the ballot weeks before the election, which provides time to research the candidates and amendments. You complete it on your timetable and mail it in time to be counted on Election Day. Done and done.

This procedure saves a fortune in equipment costs, dramatically decreases system glitches and errors, provides that all-important paper trail, makes hacking much more difficult and increases citizen participation in the voting process.

Vote-by-mail-only has been in place in Oregon since 1998. Colorado and Washington State also have gone to this system. Combined voter turnout in those three states in 2014, a midterm election year, was 66 percent compared to only 48 percent nationally. These three states consistently out-perform the U.S. turnout rate. California, Arizona, Montana, Hawaii, Utah and New Jersey are considering moving to this system.

The one hiccup the problem of matching signatures. Even here, the Legislature has a model. They can look to Pinellas County for guidance (tampabay.com/opinion). They’ve instituted a process that resulted in a rejection rate 10 times lower than the rest of the state. And they did it by providing a ballot that’s easy to use and instituting a multi-pass system to verify signatures.

If a line worker can’t find a match with other past votes cast in person or others on file, it’s referred to a manager for a second look. No ballot is rejected because middle initials are used or omitted. If there still isn’t a match, the office sends a letter to the voter to allow them to certify the new signature. They also try emailing and phoning in an attempt to reach each voter in time to fix the ballot.

The vote-by-mail system works. We know that. And we already have it. There is no down side.

The Legislature has the opportunity to finally put a nail in the coffin of “Florida, Florida, Florida.” It would be nice to be a national model for voting success rather than the exemplar of a bad joke.

Marsha Shearer is a Villager and a frequent contributor to Villages-News.com.