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Looking for the will to make voting better in Florida

David Magness of Merritt Island, Florida, sent this pic of his polling place on the first day of early voting.
David Magness of Merritt Island, Florida, sent this pic of his polling place on the first day of early voting.

In his Inaugural address today, President Obama included a line about the practical right to cast a ballot. "Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote," he said. Thanks to research out of Ohio State University, we have some sense of the cost of those long lines -- in Central Florida, about 49,000 votes.

New research from a pair of political scientists suggests that anxiety over long lines in Florida, after Republicans reduced the days of early voting by half, led more people to cast absentee ballots in 2012 than in 2008. And of those voters, write professors Daniel Smith and Michael C. Herron on their blog ElectionSmith, African-Americans were almost twice as likely as white voters to have their absentee ballots rejected. When it came to experiencing some kind of hitch at the polls, Smith and Herron write, African-American and Hispanic voters were more likely than white voters to have to cast provisional ballots, and later had their provisional ballots rejected nearly twice as often.

Herron and Smith's report (pdf), culled from intensive data-crunching of publicly available records, was not roundly welcomed in counties named as having high rates of rejected ballots.

Collier County, for instance, already gets special scrutiny under the Voting Rights Act for problems with past elections. This year, Collier rejected six percent of absentee ballots from black voters, and 1.3 percent from white voters. Collier County insists its folks did nothing wrong. From the Naples News:

[W]hile Collier elections officials said the data is accurate, they also said it paints an inaccurate and unsavory picture of the county's election system.

"You have no idea who these people are, what party they belong to or what they voted for," said Doug Rankin, the county's Republican state committeeman and a canvassing board observer. "We don't have any discrimination."

Smith, who teaches at the University of Florida, says that’s not quite the point. "I'm not saying that you're racist," he tells us. "But the fact is that we have very different rates for rejected ballots."

As Smith explains it, the clerk who opens an absentee ballot could reasonably guess from the voter's race or ethnicity from the name and address on the privacy sleeve. He says it's possible that clerks in different counties are applying different standards based on those clues, just as it's possible that voters from different communities are getting different guidance -- from whatever source -- about how to complete their ballots.

The point for Smith and Herron is that their data show Florida elections are not working as well as they should in all 67 counties, and the question for them is how to fix it. (See also: Governor Rick Scott endorses election reform.)