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Sen. Boxer files bill to shorten time voters have to stand in line at polls

Published: Friday, Dec. 7, 2012 9:24 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — TALLAHASSEE, Fla. —Waiting four hours to vote might be all right by Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s standards but it’s unacceptable to U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who introduced legislation Wednesday targeting long lines in Florida, Virginia and Ohio.

Boxer’s proposed “LINE,” or Lines Interfere With National Elections act, would set a national goal of a maximum of a one-hour wait to vote at any polling place during federal elections.

In Palm Beach County, some voters waited more than seven hours at the Lantana Road Branch Library on the last day of early voting.

Boxer’s bill attempts to “deal directly with the problem of dysfunction at polling places around the country,” she said in a news release. The bill would also require states to implement plans to fix the problems before the next federal election.

The senator filed her bill the day after Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner told a state House committee that Scott has defined a wait of four-hours or more as “under-performing” for county elections offices. Detzner is meeting next week with election supervisors and staff of counties that failed to meet that standard, including Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher.

The bill would require the U.S. attorney general to issue new national standards by Jan. 1, 2014 regarding the minimum number of voting machines, election workers and other election resources necessary to hold federal elections. And it would require that minimum standards take into account the number of eligible voters, recent voter turnout, the number of new voter registrations, Census data for each polling place and the socio-economic makeup of the voting population.

“I think we share the same concern, that long lines are an issue and that a better job can be done to get people through the voting line. But what we’re doing right now is trying to find the best solution,” said Detzner’s spokesman, Chris Cate. “So we’re not going to weigh in on any solutions until we’ve had the opportunity to talk to supervisors. They’re going to be the people most knowledgeable about what their county needs.”

A one-hour wait in densely populated areas may be an unrealistic goal, said Martin County Supervisor of Elections Vicki Davis, who is also the president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections.

“I think four hours is too long to wait in line. However, I’m not sure that an hour is too long to wait in some of the very large counties, given the challenges that they face with identifying polling locations, adequate parking, enough equipment and interpreters,” Davis said.

Bucher and some other supervisors say cost is one reason they are unable to open more early voting sites. But the state has $3 million in federal funds available to supervisors for use in federal elections for equipment. Detzner’s office was unable to say Thursday how much of that money was sought or distributed to supervisors for the 2012 election.

Boxer contends that the long waits violate the federal Voting Rights Act and she is urging U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to take immediate steps to address the long lines experienced around the country.

“The right to vote is a cornerstone of our democracy; but in making our citizens wait for hours in line, and forcing them to choose between casting their ballot or caring for a sick child, or earning a paycheck to feed their families, the government is infringing on their fundamental right to participate in our democracy,” Boxer wrote in a letter to Holder on Wednesday.

Florida lawmakers this week began weighing a possible legislative fix to voting problems and initially blamed the long lines on local supervisors for failing to provide adequate early voting sites and on a lengthy ballot. The GOP-controlled legislature placed 11 lengthy constitutional changes on the ballots, which were up to 10 pages long in some counties.

Florida Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Jack Latvala, a Republican, said the federal government does not need to get involved.

“I think we’re perfectly capable of handling that problem in Florida,” he said. “We’re going to look at this in a careful, methodical way and then we’ll figure out what’s right for Florida.”

The state legislature last year passed a bill, signed into law by Scott, HB 1355, that shortened the number of early voting days from 14 to eight. The Palm Beach Post has reported that former Gov. Charlie Crist, who is now estranged from the GOP, is among those who contend the purpose of the law was to limit early voting in 2012 by minority voters and Democrats, whose early votes played a major role in Obama’s 2008 Florida victory.

But Latvala said a Justice Department investigation is unnecessary and he remains unconvinced that the new law played a role in the hours-long waits.

“I don’t see how that’s any reflection on me or my political party. In each one of those counties that had those problems, it was Democrat supervisors of elections. They made local decisions that didn’t work out right.”

Lawmakers have for years ignored supervisors’ requests for more options with early voting sites, now limited to public libraries, city halls and elections offices or branches that have been open at least a year.

Democratic State Sen. Jeff Clemens said the legislature is at fault for failing to expand the types of early voting sites as well as for the lengthy ballot. Clemens, who sits on the Senate elections panel, said he intends to file legislation limiting the number of proposals lawmakers can put on a ballot.

“It’s mind-blowing that we could deny them the flexibility they’ve been asking for for years and then turn around and blame them,” he said. Clemens said he welcomes a federal inquiry.

“To me it’s clear what the intent of HB 1355 was and that was to make it harder for people to vote,” he said. “So if the state isn’t going to protect its own residents’ right to vote, I would hope the federal government would.”

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