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A few days after the election, a CNN reporter asked Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner about long lines and other problems Florida had on Election Day: "How could this happen in 2012 in a state in the United States, that people would wait six hours and many would just abandon and not vote at all?"
Detzner responded that there were two reasons for the long lines. First, Florida had a long ballot -- 11 constitutional amendments and in Miami-Dade, a slew of local amendments -- on top of the presidential election and local races.
Second, he said, turnout "was unprecedented. It was a record year of turnout. More people voted before Election Day using absentee ballots and voting early than ever before in our history." Detzner identified some other issues throughout the interview, including that elections offices need to have sufficient equipment and the state needs more early voting locations.
Was the Nov. 6, 2012, election in Florida a "record" for overall turnout? And did Florida also break a record of pre-election day voting?
In mid-December, Detzner plans to make a fact-finding trip to five counties that had some long lines and other election problems, including Miami-Dade, where voters stood in line for as long as seven hours. Broward is also on that list -- the county found 963 ballots after Election Day, but the supervisor said that they weren’t actually "lost."
Detzner will begin his road trip in Tampa, which performed well, as a benchmark before he visits the counties that had problems.
Florida’s general election turnout was about 71.2 percent.
This was no record. Statistics starting in 1954 show Florida general election turnout exceeded 71.2 percent 11 times: 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 2004 and 2008. The highest general election turnout was 83 percent in 1992 when Bill Clinton won his first presidential race.
"Relatively speaking, Florida in 2012 moved backward when it came to voting," the Miami Herald wrote after the election.
Detzner was referring to the sheer number of voters -- 8,491,920 -- not the percentage of voters who participated, said Chris Cate, Florida Department of State spokesman. That’s the highest number of voters who have ever participated.
Cate said that "more total people cast a ballot, early or not, in this election than any previous Florida election." Looking at 1992 -- the year that had record-high turn-out -- Cate noted that about 5.3 million Floridians cast a ballot, which is about three million fewer than November 2012.
This growth in the number of voters makes sense considering Florida's population growth. We looked up the numbers and found the state population was 13.7 million in 1992 but grew to 19 million in 2011 (the most recent data available).
Early voting and absentee
Florida began offering absentee ballots to everyone -- not just those who could prove they were out of town or in the military -- in 2002. The state began offering early voting in 2004.
Let’s look at the breakdown for the types of votes cast in presidential general elections since the start of early voting:
|Total (Absentee+Early+Election Day)||7,640,319||8,456,329||8,491,920|
Source: Florida Division of Elections (Note: Total reflects certified results.)
In 2012, about 4.77 million Floridians cast ballots early or absentee, more than either 2008 or 2004. There was also a huge increase -- more than 1 million -- in early voting between 2004 and Barack Obama’s first presidential victory in 2008. Despite those large increases in early voting, a Republican-led state Legislature voted in 2011 to cut back the number of days for early voting. Republican Gov. Rick Scott refused to extend early voting in 2012.
In response to the state’s decision to reduce early voting days, the Obama campaign encouraged supporters to vote with absentee ballots, which are typically mailed in but can also be dropped off in person at the supervisor of elections office.
Detzner’s focus on sheer numbers rather than percentage
We sent Detzner’s claim to several political science professors who study elections and asked whether it is more relevant to compare turnout percentages or raw numbers, particularly when examining why we had election problems and how to fix them.
"In the end, it is the total number of people that show up that creates the lines and counting delays, not the percentage," University of Central Florida professor Aubrey Jewett wrote in an email to PolitiFact Florida.
Given that state and local officials knew that record numbers of people had registered, they should have been prepared for record numbers of voters, Jewett said. "I shudder to think what things might have looked like if we actually had a record turnout percent this past election!"
Our experts also said turnout numbers shouldn’t be used as an excuse for the long lines. The state Legislature was responsible for reducing early voting days, limiting early voting locations and for placing 11 amendments on the ballot. And decisions by local officials about spending, training, equipment and staffing also contributed to problems.
"Overall, there is plenty of blame to go around for our voting problems at both the state and local level," Jewett said.
Steven Tauber, a government professor at the University of South Florida, told PolitiFact Florida that he saw three main reasons for the long lines: "The primary reason is that the state was unprepared for the volume of voters, and they should have been. Clearly, the state did not provide enough resources to handle the election. The second point is that for no good reason, the state cut back on early voting. The third reason is that the state legislature unnecessarily loaded the ballot with needless, wordy amendments (most of which lost) that lengthened the amount of time it took people to vote."
Susan MacManus, a University of Southern Florida professor, said that the more relevant information is what happened on a local level, in the counties that had the long lines or problems. "I don’t ever like to use aggregate statewide figures when you have concentrated areas of problems," she said.
But turnout figures don’t provide much of a window on the problems in South Florida.
In the state’s largest county in Miami-Dade, turnout dropped from about 70 percent in 2008 to about 67.6 percent in 2012. The number of voters increased slightly by about 16,000. In addition to the long ballot, the county faced a series of other problems that contributed to the lines, including a shortage of temporary workers and equipment, and the county’s decision to delay a plan to redraw precincts to avoid huge crowds where the population had swelled.
Broward had an even bigger dip in turnout percentage but a similar increase in voters -- and again, that doesn’t explain problems, such as finding 963 ballots in the elections warehouse after Election Day.
Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes told the Sun-Sentinel that her office "got thrown off its game" with a lawsuit that allowed in-person absentee voting the Sunday and Monday before Election Day, days that were meant to prepare precincts and tabulate absentee ballots."
As he was grilled about Florida’s long lines, Detzner said, "The turnout was unprecedented. It was a record year of turnout. More people voted before Election Day using absentee ballots and voting early than ever before in our history."
He’s right that the sheer number of voters was a record, at 8.5 million. Also, he's right that more people "than ever before" voted early or absentee.
But it was not the highest turnout by percentage. At 71 percent, 2012 marked the 12th highest turnout since 1954.
We rate Detzner’s claim Mostly True.
CNN Transcript, Interview with Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, Nov. 9, 2012
Tampa Bay Times, "Gov. Rick Scott defends Florida election as his chief says ‘we could have done better,’" Nov. 10, 2012
Tampa Bay Times, "Florida will investigate voting problems in 5 counties,"Dec. 5, 2012
Florida Division of Elections, Voter turnout statistics, 1954-2008
Florida Division of Elections, General election facts, 2004-2010
Florida Department of State, Election results, 2012-1978
PolitiFact, "Flexibility in early voting means possibly less hours to vote," May 23, 2011
Miami Herald, "Miami-Dade group begins examining what went wrong in elections,"Nov. 28, 2012
Miami Herald, "Miami-Dade put off plan to draw new precincts before election day,"Nov. 17, 2012
Miami Herald, "Voter suppression and Florida’s butterfly effect," Nov. 11, 2012
Sun-Sentinel, "1,000 ballots turn up after election day in Broward," Nov. 12, 2012
Sun-Sentinel’s Mayo on the Side blog, "Is Broward’s election chief Snipes slipping?"Nov. 14, 2012
Broward Supervisor of Elections, A message to Broward voters, Nov. 15, 2012
Interview, Chris Cate, spokesman for the Florida Division of Elections, Dec. 5, 2012
Interview, Daniel A. Smith, University of Florida political science professor, Dec. 5, 2012
Interview, Susan MacManus, University of South Florida political science professor, Dec. 5, 2012
Interview, Michael McDonald, George Mason University government and politics professor, Dec. 6, 2012
Interview, Steven Tauber, University of South Florida government professor, Dec. 5, 2012
U.S. Census, accessed Dec. 7, 2012
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