ORLANDO, Fla.—It's getting ugly in Florida, already.
Early voting here was supposed to keep the lines at polling places sane on Tuesday, distributing turnout over weeks, not crammed into the same day. But at precincts across the Sunshine State, not only has early voting been chaotic, but so has absentee voting, and so has Election Day voting.
By mid-morning in Orange County, a critical piece of the “I-4 Corridor” between Tampa and Orlando, voters had waited three and four hours to cast ballots, at precincts they breezed through four years ago, some said. This, despite a phalanx of attorneys from the Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights’ “Election Watch,” who were quickly dispatched to 50 precincts across Orlando to clear up bottlenecks.
David Glicken took the day off from his private practice to help, and arrived at Precinct 217 in the mostly African-American Pine Hills neighborhood, an hour before the polls opened at 7 a.m. He quickly found myriad problems there. No one was directing traffic, he told The Daily Beast, so it took some an hour to find a parking spot. At around 10 a.m., an Orange County sheriff's patrol car cruised through the crowded parking lot and appeared to be taking down license plate information—“Intimidation,” Glicken said. And there was no accommodation for people with disabilities: voter Tamara Barua told The Daily Beast she saw three disabled people fighting over a single chair.
That, it turned out, was only the beginning. The line grew quickly and into the hundreds of people, snaking through the narrow hallways and out to Hiawassee Road. When Glicken walked inside to find out what was going on, he learned there were a half-dozen polling stations but only two people checking addresses and checking people in. “It’s ridiculous,” said Tainese Middlebrooks, who waited three hours to vote. “I feel horrible. This took 20 minutes last time.” Barua waited three and a half hours to vote, she said, and this was her third time trying. She tried twice to vote early but left to avoid long lines each time.
“I strongly feel this is voter supression,” Barua said. “It seems they chose to eliminate resources.” Glicken called the county’s supervisor of elections. A staffer there told Glicken they had as many as two-dozen people there who could be sent to crowded polling places, but that the precinct head had to specifically request it, he said. Glicken walked in and asked her to request it, and she refused, he said. So he called Election Watch for backup.
At 11 a.m., Dale Ho showed up. He's an attorney with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense Fund, and he traveled to Florida from New York to help with the Election Watch effort. Glicken briefed Ho, and the two marched into the precinct office together to demand some answers. "What are you complaining for?" the beleagued precinct worker Betty Clark asked Ho.
“That the lines are long,” Ho replied.
“I can't do nothing about that,” Clark fired back. Ho told her she could ask for more resources. Clark said she did. “They said they were going to send someone.”
“Oh really,” Ho said. “I was told you refused.”
As they walked back to the parking lot, frustrated voters in the narrow hallway leading to the polling booths grabbed them by the arms, one after another.
“Are you getting us more help?” they asked? “Are you getting someone here?” Back at the supervisor’s office, Cowles told The Daily Beast there are reasons it’s taking longer to vote than it might have four years ago.
Each voter actually has to turn in three ballots, because there are 11 different measures being considered along with those local, state, and federal candidates running for political office. Each of those ballots must be fed into the tabulator one at a time. Some confused voters are trying to stuff all three ballots into the tabulators at once, jamming them. Other tabulators are simply filling up, which requires election workers to stop, remove the ballot-stuffed bucket the tabulator feeds into, and replace it with a fresh one.
As for why certain places have longer lines than others, Cowles said, “These are heavy growth areas of the city.” The reason for the bottleneck at Precinct 217, for example, is that it's located in a part of Orlando with thousands of new residents who may not be on the rolls at that particular precinct. That means when they showed up Tuesday morning, they have to provide proof of address, which also clogs up the lines.
Cowells said he was dispatching extra poll workers to Pine Hill, but that it takes time to mobilize them.
“They have to go get the backup machine, get the machine, the person, get the directions, and then get on the road,” he said. Rest assured though, “any voter in line at 7 o’clock will still get to vote.” The problems aren’t just limited to long lines. Ho said he spent last week dealing with complaints in nearby Volusia County where a local Tea Party–affiliated chapter decided to cross reference current voter registration lists with some other database—with older addresses—and use the supposed discrepancy as grounds for filing challenges to those people’s right to vote. Just by filing such a challenge, the local supervisor was required to mark the ballot as “provisional”—not counted on Election Day.
Sarah Brannon, director of public agency voter registration at Project Vote and affiliated with the Lawyers Committee, said a “poll watcher” at a station set up at the La Quinta Inn on Research Parkway has been walking up to people in line armed with a list of voters “we think was generated by a Republican-affiliated group. He has been using the list to check people’s IDs as they approach the polls. As a poll watcher, he’s not allowed to talk directly to voters.”
Brannon also said the line at a station on the University of Central Florida campus is now between 300 and 400 people long because there’s only one person there checking people in. She’s certain the line will be that long well after the polls close in a few hours.