Florida’s growing history of flawed elections regained national attention Tuesday when President Obama used the story of a 102-year-old former Belle Glade farmworker who waited hours to vote to highlight a new nonpartisan voting commission.
The commission, which will be led by lawyers who represented the Obama and Romney presidential campaigns, has been tasked with reducing long lines, providing better customer service and ensuring that members of the military and others who are overseas can cast a ballot, among other issues.
“When any American, no matter where they live or what their party, are denied that right because they can’t afford to wait for five or six or seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals,” Obama said Tuesday.
Obama told the story of Desiline Victor, who now lives in North Miami. It took her two trips to the polls during early voting to cast her ballot. Others in line with her complained to the election staff, and she was told to come back when lines might be shorter, according to the Advancement Project, a civil rights group working with Victor.
When she did return, she waited three hours.
“And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say,” Obama said. “And hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line to support her — because Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read, ‘I voted.’ “
The commission will be led by Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg, lawyers for the Obama and Romney campaigns, respectively.
During the 2012 presidential election, Florida voters stood in line for as long as eight hours to cast a ballot. Then it took the state four days to announce Obama had won its 29 electoral votes — long after it was clear he’d been reelected.
The Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott had shortened the early voting window to eight days from 14 prior to the presidential election. When it became apparent that voters had to choose between standing in hours-long lines during early voting and leaving the polls, Scott rejected requests to extend early voting.
An Ohio University professor estimated that as many as 200,000 Floridians may have left without casting a vote for president because of the long lines.
Obama is forming his commission as the Florida Legislature moves to solve some of the state’s voting problems.
The House Elections and Elections Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved a proposal that would allow election supervisors to hold early voting from eight to 14 days and for up to 12 hours per day and have a broader array of early voting locales.
Rep. Dennis Baxley, the sponsor of HB 1355, said Wednesday the new plan should help fix some of the problems voters encountered but stopped short of saying his bill that shortened early voting was a mistake and that supervisors needed the full two weeks.
“They need something. And that’s what they asked for and said would help them. So we’re trying to be responsive. I think allowing them more discretion and more time is certainly part of the answer,” Baxley, R-Ocala, said after the vote.
The new measure, which mirrors plans supported by Gov Rick Scott’s administration and the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, also would impose a 75-word limit on the constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by the legislature, but only for the first attempt. The full text of amendments struck down by the court and rewritten by the attorney general would be allowed.
Supervisors blamed 11 lengthy constitutional proposals placed on the November ballot by the GOP-dominated legislature for the long lines.
Members of Congress are also acting. On Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said he was cosponsoring the LINE Act, which stands for Lines Interfere with National Elections Act. It would requires the Attorney General and federal elections officials to issue new national voting standards aimed at preventing a wait time of more than an hour at any polling place.
States such as Florida, where voters endured long lines, would have to comply with a plan to fix the problem in time for the next election.
In December, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the voter problems. Former Gov. Charlie Crist testified that he believed there was a concerted effort to suppress the Democratic vote in Florida. Cutting off early voting before the Sunday before election day was a shot at black churches that have historically mobilized voters from the pews to the polls, he said.
The White House steered clear of politics in a commission fact sheet it released Wednesday.
“Long lines are not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue,” the fact sheet read. “Regardless of party affiliation, no voter should have to wait in line for hours to vote. Yet this past election saw long lines in ‘red states,’ ‘blue states,’ and ‘swing states’ alike. Improving all voters’ experience is an issue on which everybody can agree.”
Staff Writer Dara Kam contributed to this story.