Preventing the Next Hanging Chad

October 16, 2012

So much has already gone wrong with Florida’s voting laws in the lead-up to the November election — improper purges, irrational restrictions on voter registration groups, the rollback of voting rights, the cuts to early voting. Now, for a little something different. Finally, good voting news from the Sunshine State.

Yesterday, the Division of Elections issued statewide guidance to all of Florida’s 67 Supervisors of Elections (the local officials that run the election system in each county), detailing exactly how provisional ballots should be counted in the general election. The guidance responds to a letter the Brennan Center and its allies sent to the Division, coupled with direct outreach by the League of Women Voters of Florida, to all 67 county Supervisors.

The Division’s response was clear: If a voter casts a provisional ballot, that ballot will be counted absent evidence of fraud or ineligibility. That means if Florida Supervisors are inundated with provisional ballots — a real concern in light of Florida’s rush to change its voting rules right before a presidential election — and run out of time to individually investigate each one, the tie goes to the voter. That’s absolutely the right call, and offers a model for other states grappling with heaps of provisional ballots.

This guidance is critically important because last year the Florida Legislature made the unwise decision to require voters who move from one county to another to cast a provisional ballot. For years, voters in Florida have been able to vote a normal ballot after moving and could simply update their new address at the polls. This worked just fine and avoided the unnecessary piling on of provisional ballots. But the new rules are likely to dramatically increase the number of provisional ballots that Florida election officials have to field. If the ballot counting rules were not made crystal clear, this could create another Florida 2000-style debacle. That would be a tragedy for eligible, registered Florida voters — no one should lose the right to vote in this day and age just because she moves.

Fortunately, the Elections Divisions recognized these concerns are real ones and took affirmative steps to avert that disaster by offering a clear, sensible rule. When in doubt, eligible Floridians’ ballots should be counted. That’s the way it should be. Happily, the most likely contender for this year’s “hanging chad” appears to be out of the running.

Especially sweet is the fact that today’s victory comes hand in hand with another victory for swing-state voters — early voting hours were restored for the three days before the election in Ohio, ensuring fair and equal voting opportunities for all Ohioans. The voting rights victories continue to mount!