Study ranks Hillsborough County among the worst in Florida for access to voting

12/09/13 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: Voting rights, Voter Purge, Hillsborough County, Craig Latimer, elections, early voting

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Casting a vote in Florida isn’t as easy in some counties as others and Hillsborough is among the six worst for access to the polls. That’s a according to a new study released Monday by the Center for American Progress Action Fund that analyzed voting data from 40 of the state’s most populous counties. Tom Periello, the group’s president and CEO, says the study looked at a variety of factors.

“Voter turnout, overall voter registration rate, voter registration rates for African-Americans and for Hispanics, rate of registered voters purged from the list, waiting times, provisional cast, provisional ballots rejected and absentee ballots rejected.”

According to the study, the worst voting rights culprit is Columbia County which includes Lake City in north Florida. Joshua Field is the deputy director for the group that conducted the study.

“It had the worst voter turn out of its citizen voting age population of the counties that we analyzed. It also had the lowest percentage of registered voters, the second lowest percentage of eligible African-American voter registration and the third lowest percentage of eligible Hispanic voter registration and it also had one of the highest percentage of absentee ballots rejected – nearly two times more than the average Florida county.”

But Hillsborough County wasn’t much better, coming in at sixth worst for overall voting experience. Hillsborough was also ranked the worst county for what the study calls “voter list maintenance” and relates it to the controversial voter purge in which the state provided a flawed list of possibly ineligible voters. During an interview Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer acknowledged the numbers listed in the study were correct – nearly 5,000 voters were removed – but says that was a result of necessary maintenance of the rolls.

“That was the faulty purge they started in ’10 or ’11. We stopped that on May 19th. We only had 72 names and we totally stopped it after people came in and started showing us their birth certificates, so no, that had absolutely no impact on this.”

Latimer contends the study unfairly evaluates election data.

“Election Day was a trying day. We lost our phones. We actually had a major power outage. We lost the TECO circuit for almost three hours. In spite of all that we were still able to report our results completely by 10:30 at night. We didn’t have people waiting in long lines. We had a record number of vote by mail ballots that were turned in and accepted. So, overall, as I said at the beginning of this, it’s unfortunate that this group’s never even contacted my office to try and clarify any of this information they had.”

But Field from the Center for American Progress Action Fund says the information in his study isn’t intended to demonize supervisors of elections, but rather should be a tool for election leaders.

“And we’re hoping at this point that experts on the ground can use it as a foundation and reach out to local officials, figure out why certain counties perform better than others and start having a conversation of what can be done to ensure that the voting experience is fairly similar from county to county which we have shown is not at this point.”

Hillsborough is one of five Florida counties that required approval from the Department of Justice before making changes to voting laws. Section five of the Voting Rights Act was created to protect counties that had a history of racial discrimination, but it was gutted this summer after the Supreme Court ruled the law was based on outdated information. Brad Ashwell, a voting rights advocate with Common Cause Florida, says that could be a problem in counties like Hillsborough.

“And the protections that at least five Florida counties directly received are gone which we believe could indirectly embolden some, possibly, supervisors but, we’re more concerned about county commissioners and the Florida Legislature and others who could make decisions that might impact voters, particularly minority voters where they don’t really have to worry about the same monitoring they had to deal with in the past. They don’t have to worry about potential ramifications of the Justice Department lawsuit.”

According to Ashwell, the differences in voting experiences from county to county show why local supervisors should have flexibility in determining how to best run elections in their counties. He says there is still work to be done, but referenced a change to Florida voting laws last year that reinstated some early voting days that had been cut in 2011. That year, Governor Rick Scott signed a bill that reduced early voting days from 14 to 8, but last year, that was undone by giving supervisors the ability to have anywhere between 8 and 14 days of early voting.

“I don’t know if you remember, that was sort of the mantra last legislative session was flexibility for the supervisors in terms of the locations, where they can conduct early voting. They kind of went against their rhetoric and they greatly expanded the number of locations and the types of locations that can conduct early voting.”

One of the biggest problems seen during the 2012 presidential election when early voting was limited were long wait times. Florida made national news when voters in some counties were still standing in line to vote even after a presidential winner had been called. Sonya Gibson is a voter in Palm Beach County. She says she waited in line for 9 hours on the last day of early voting in 2012 before giving up and returning on Election Day when she waited for another ten hours.

“While I was in that line, I witnessed a lot of things in that line – voters being turned away for different discrepancies like name changes, address changes and different things like that. My waiting time, I waited with my daughters. It was very gruesome. I waited there all day. I thought I would be in and out at least within the three hour time frame, but I wasn’t. I stood in that line for ten hours.”

But Perriello, the Center for American Progress Action Fund CEO, says that county, as well as some others, weren’t ranked among the worst for voters in Florida.

“Some of the biggest counties that have been subject to scrutiny in the past like Miami-Dade and Palm Beach performed among the worst on waiting times for voters and rates for provisional ballots rejected, but their overall performance put together was closer to the average for the state.”

Other counties in the Tampa Bay area ranked well in the study. Pinellas came in 24th worst out of 40 counties. Only four counties had better overall voting experiences than Pasco County. Six were better than Sarasota. The study has not been given to the Florida Secretary of State or Supervisors of Elections, but advocates hope the information will help leaders make necessary changes to voting rules in the state.

Fl Voting Report

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