Once a focal point, unsettled Florida now nearly afterthought

Kathleen Haughney

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- In the end, Florida didn't actually matter at all.

And that's a good thing. Because even though President Obama got more than enough electoral votes to win reelection Tuesday, Florida is still officially up for grabs.

No, there are no hanging chads or butterfly ballots this time. Not even any major glitches. And unlike 2000, there won't be a recount where the future of the country hangs in the balance.

But with record turnout - more than 70 percent - local elections supervisors are still trying to tally absentee and provisional ballots that could push the Florida outcome one way or the other.

As of Wednesday afternoon, nine counties, including Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade, were still tallying those votes.

"We are trying to work as fast as we can," Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher said.

And though the Florida Department of State acknowledged it was possible that the counties could finish counting absentee ballots by the end of the day, it's likely a total vote count won't be available until Saturday.

In contrast, even Hawaii, which is five hours behind Florida, was able to call the state right after 6 p.m. local time when the polls closed.

As of Wednesday night, Obama was leading in Florida by 49,884 votes. It's likely he will maintain the lead, but it's still an unknown.

The fact that Florida can't call the state yet for either Obama or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has officially conceded, has put us once again in the political spotlight, and made the state the butt of national jokes.

More seriously, the images of long lines of Floridians waiting to vote have given Democrats and voting rights groups a platform to attack Republicans for changes they made in a 2011 election law that shortened the number of early voting days from 14 to eight.

Leading up to the election, Florida was already getting lots of attention.

Images of long, long lines of people in South Florida waiting to cast ballots during early voting dominated the airwaves. Many voters in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties reported waiting several hours. That continued on Election Day with some voters in Miami not getting done at the polls until about 1:30 a.m.

Even Obama seemed to have noticed, making an apparent jab at Florida in his acceptance speech early Wednesday morning.

"I want to thank every American who participated in this election whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time," he said. "By the way, we have to fix that."

And the president is not the only one saying that.

Gov. Rick Scott, when questioned last week about the long voter lines, said that seeing so many people turn out to do their civic duty was "exciting."

On Wednesday, Scott stopped short of criticizing the state election's process, but said he would be reviewing it with Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner.

"What went right, what can we improve?" Scott said.

State Rep. Perry Thurston of Plantation, the House Democratic leader, said that the state should be "embarrassed" by the lines and the national limelight they attracted.

"I have gotten calls from all over the country asking why we can't run elections," he said.

In Palm Beach County's case, 8,000 absentee ballots arrived in the mail Tuesday. And processing them is not a speedy task, due to a 2011 law. Elections officials are required to compare the signature on each ballot to the signature on a person's voter registration. If the poll worker doesn't think they match, the ballot can go through several layers of inspection before the county canvassing board decides whether to accept it or disqualify it.

The idea is to protect the state from absentee ballot fraud, but it also makes the process longer.

Bucher said Wednesday that she would have the information all turned over to state by Saturday, but didn't say how much longer it would take.

"I just need coffee," Bucher, who worked until 3:30 a.m. on election night, said while sorting through yet another pile of ballots Wednesday afternoon.

Broward County, in comparison, was still tabulating 30,000 of the 165,000 absentee ballots on Wednesday that it received.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist, who supported Obama for reelection, took to the airwaves Tuesday criticizing Scott on MSNBC for the early-voting change from 14 to eight days and for not extending the period via executive order. Both Crist and former Gov. Jeb Bush had opted to extend early voting during the two previous presidential elections.

"When you're elected governor of Florida, you're not governor of the Republicans of Florida, you're the governor of the people of Florida and you need to stand up for the people each and every time," Crist said. "Do what's right."

By Kathleen Haughney
Sun Sentinel