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Polls problem expected to be thing of the past

November 14, 2012
By BOB PETCHER ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Some Election Day voting lines at certain precincts in Lee County were noted to be up to six hours long to cast a ballot. While some gritted out the delay, others were more vocally outraged and stormed off without voting.

On Fort Myers Beach, the lines were not as dramatic at Precincts #81 and #82, but a nuisance to those who braved the wait to get through the door and a second wait for the scanning process. The Church of the Ascension precinct cast 1,834 votes (out of 2,449 registered voters), while Chapel by the Sea precinct cast 1,825 votes (2,752 registered voters).

"On Election Day, we tried to time it right by waiting until 2 p.m. to vote. It took us an hour and a half just to get to the door. Then, it took another hour and 15 minutes to wait in a second line to send our ballots through the one scanner in the building," said Beach resident Jenny Tardiff, who voted at Precinct #82. "We were lucky though because we had a good group of locals around us. A lot of political jokes were made and the laughs continued all the way from start to finish."

Article Photos

Lee County Supervisor of Elections Sharon Harrington pauses during an emotional moment before the closing of her prepared statement about the Election Day problems.

"The events at the polling sites are completely inexcusable with three to five hours in line during the rain all because this site had only one ballot reader," said Beach resident Pete Yeatman, who voted at Precinct #81. "The person in charge on the site was begging operations to get at least one more reader; he was told he had an adequate amount. A four page ballot and a process for personal scanning of ballots was difficult for older technically challenged voters with only one scanner."

Both precincts could have used a second scanner, though poll workers were not to be blamed for the predicament.

"The people working the precinct did a great job with what they were given," said Tardiff. "This was an extremely important election ... so in my opinion casting my vote was well worth the two hour and 45 minute wait. However, I am hoping that 2016 goes back to the normal Chapel by the Sea 10-minute waiting lines."

Last Wednesday, at a press conference in the Lee County Constitutional Complex in Fort Myers, Lee County Supervisor of Elections Sharon Harrington stated she thought her team was properly prepared for Election Day, but did not anticipate the long voting lines that caused a major timeliness factor issue for election services. An elections office employee said the last ballot was cast at roughly 2:15 a.m.

"Didn't the Early Voting process provide Ms. Harrington with any lessons?," questioned Yeatman. "I don't believe that Ms. Harrington should be allowed to resign as the Lee County Supervisor of Elections, she should be fired!!"

At the conference, Harrington stated she would not resign and would look towards better solutions to make sure this problem does not occur again. She downplayed any allegations of underhandedness or intentional efforts to do harm to the process.

"Anyone who truly knows me is aware that I take my job and my responsibilities as your Supervisor of Elections very seriously," she said. "Accusations of deliberately suppressing voter turnout or sabotaging this election could not be farther from the truth. That's not the way we do business in this office."

Harrington, who has been Supervisor since 2004 and in the office since 1989, listed factors that had a direct effect on the election process -both in early voting and Election Day voting. She plans to continue to lobby state legislators to change laws for more flexibility in choosing early voter sites and plans to look for funding to increase sites.

The "bottleneck" was cited to be the four-page ballot.

"We had an extremely long ballot. It became an amazing, amazing problem on many fronts. It held up the lines during early voting and took a long time for people to vote and get them through the scanners," Harrington said. "We knew it would take a little longer to scan the four pages, but we were unprepared for what the reality of the situation ended up being at the polls. We had a problem because we had something that was totally unusual."

The same number of scanners was utilized at each precinct as the 2008 Presidential election, which had an 83 percent turnout to this year's 69 percent turnout. Scanner distribution ($5,000 apiece) was justified by voter registration -precincts with more than 3,500 votes had two machines, while those under that number had only one.

"We underestimated the actual usage time that eventually caused the excessive delays," Harrington said.

A stated 167 tabulators were dispatched to 125 precincts, while 15 units were used for early voting and could not be used on Election Day due to different programming and their need in case of a recount. Two scanners per precinct are expected for the next Presidential election.

"It is my goal to seek additional funding to purchase more optical scanners so that this unfortunate situation does not repeat itself," she said. "My funding comes from the Lee County Board of County Commissioners. I plan on working with each and every one of them."

Harington said her office has returned money to the BOCC each year since 1989. The trend to go to early voting and ballot-by-mail has decreased regular election voting and had lessened the financial blow on paying Election Day personnel until this year's extended times.

Jammed machines and poll worker training added to the dilemma, according to Harrington. Poll workers were criticized by those who waited in line for their inattentiveness under the weight of the situation.

'The poll workers all get the same training as they do for any election. They are all told that if there is someone in the line that needs assistance, by recognizing a wheelchair, a cane, or a mother with a young child, they are to go up and ask them," she said.

Cost of the 2012 election at the county level will be roughly $1 million. There were more than 102,000 requests for mail ballots, and 90,000 ballots were tabulated on Election Day alone.

"It does add up," she said.

Harrington became emotional by the end of her prepared statement. She takes full responsibility for what occurred, although she doesn't call the problem a failure.

"I want to apologize to the voters in Lee County, to those who waiting in long lines during the eight days of early voting, to those who waited in long lines at their precincts and to those who got discouraged and left without voting," she said, teary-eyed. "Moving forward, I will do whatever it takes to ensure that this does not happen again in Lee County."



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