Lee elections boss apologizes for Tuesday's voting problems

William DeShazer/Staff
Lee Supervisor of Elections Sharon Harrington tries to hold back tears as she apologizes to voters for long lines at the polls during a press conference at her offices in Fort Myers on Wednesday Nov. 6, 2012. Voters waited in lines for up to six hours.

Photo by WILLIAM DESHAZER, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

William DeShazer/Staff Lee Supervisor of Elections Sharon Harrington tries to hold back tears as she apologizes to voters for long lines at the polls during a press conference at her offices in Fort Myers on Wednesday Nov. 6, 2012. Voters waited in lines for up to six hours.

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William DeShazer/Staff
The Supervisor of Election Sharon Harrington pauses while becoming emotional as she apologizes to voters for long lines at the polls during a press conference at her offices in Fort Myers on Wednesday Nov. 6, 2012. Voters waited in lines for up to six hours yesterday.

Photo by WILLIAM DESHAZER // Buy this photo

William DeShazer/Staff The Supervisor of Election Sharon Harrington pauses while becoming emotional as she apologizes to voters for long lines at the polls during a press conference at her offices in Fort Myers on Wednesday Nov. 6, 2012. Voters waited in lines for up to six hours yesterday.

Video from NBC-2

— The Lee County elections supervisor emotionally choked up as she apologized to voters Wednesday for jammed machines, long lines and up to six-hour delays at some precincts on Election Day.

Elections Supervisor Sharon Harrington maintained she and her staff felt they were prepared, but said they never anticipated the large number of registered voters who showed up Tuesday or the equipment problems, including jammed optical scanners and ink smearing on rollers after voters fed ballots into the scanners to tabulate votes.

Harrington also blamed the lengthy four-page bilingual ballots for long lines that ended in the last ballot being cast at 2:15 a.m. Wednesday and the last precinct tabulating ballots at about 3 a.m. Due to broken scanners in that precinct, she said, ballots were placed in secure overflow bins and boxes that were securely taped before all ballots were counted and scanned.

“This hurts, but I’m taking full responsibility for what happened,” Harrington said, her voice choking with emotion during a press conference Wednesday in which she apologized to those who left without voting. “I don’t want this to discourage young people, people who were trying to vote for the first time and did not get that opportunity.”

Harrington said her office prepared for Election Day based on the 83 percent of registered voters who cast ballots in 2008, but underestimated the time to feed ballots into the optical scanners, which caused “excessive delays.” The system isn’t as fast as the touch-screen computers used until 2004, when counties were forced to switch due to possible hacking.

This year, 68 percent of Lee’s 388,427 registered voters cast ballots — below the state average of 70 percent — but Harrington wasn’t certain if the Lee turnout was due to long lines prompting voters to leave without casting ballots.

“I will do whatever it takes to ensure that this does not happen again in Lee County,” Harrington said. “It’s my goal to purchase additional scanners so this unfortunate situation does not repeat itself.”

She said she had no way of anticipating the problems and has no intention of stepping down. Harrington, an elections employee since 1989, was re-elected to a third four-year supervisor term this year when no one filed to run against her.

Collier officials didn’t experience extensive delays because they petitioned the state to reduce the four-page ballots to three. They generally begin preparing six months earlier, but Collier Deputy Supervisor of Elections Tim Durham said they began eight months ago, after realizing the ballot would be four pages, and then worked to decrease Election Day lines.

This year, 68 percent of Lee’s 388,427 registered voters cast ballots — below the state average of 70 percent — but Harrington wasn’t certain if the Lee turnout was due to long lines prompting voters to leave without casting ballots.

“One of the ways to reduce in-person voting was to vigorously promote absentee voting, which saw an increase of 11,000 ballots between 2008 and 2012,” Durham said.

Collier used 120 of its 145 scanners at the 60 polling sites, he said, and 22 units used for early voting were prepped as standby units immediately after early voting.

“Some sites had one unit while others had two, three or four depending upon that precinct’s highest Election Day turnout based on past elections,” Durham said. “It was the most equipment we ever deployed for an election. ... We knew that we needed to use all of our scanners to adequately service our voters.”

Collier also sent “rovers,” — more-experienced poll workers — to help in Golden Gate and Immokalee, where voters still were waiting after polling sites closed at 7 p.m. In Collier, 83 percent of voters cast ballots, the highest turnout among Florida’s 67 counties, according to state figures posted Wednesday.

Harrington said Lee’s problems began with an insufficient number of early voting locations and scanner problems, which ended in employees working overtime, 96 hours over eight days at five sites, 15- or 16-hour days.

“I plan to continue to lobby our state legislators to change the laws to give election supervisors more flexibility in choosing (early voting) sites and seek funding to provide additional locations through the county,” she said.

She blamed a state law’s requirements for limiting potential early voting sites and said the office had approached others, including churches or synagogues, but were turned down.

Unlike Collier County, which had seven early voting sites for 180,560 registered voters, Lee had five for about 150 voting booths, despite having more than double the number of voters. State records show Lee had the second-fewest early voting sites per capita among 12 Florida counties with more than 300,000 registered voters.

Unlike Collier County, which had seven early voting sites for 180,560 registered voters, Lee had five for about 150 voting booths, despite having more than double the number of voters. State records show Lee had the second-fewest early voting sites per capita among 12 Florida counties with more than 300,000 registered voters.

Harrington said Lee County has about 230 ballot scanners and used 167 at 125 precincts, giving two to those with more than 3,500 voters and one for those with fewer. Twenty were programmed only for poll worker training, seven were used to scan mail-in ballots after high-speed scanner problems, 15 used for early voting were kept in case of early voting recounts, six inoperable units are in warehouses, and 15 were on standby in case of failures.

Five of the standby machines were sent to five precincts with inoperable scanners.

Harrington noted there were 32 different ballot styles in Lee and scanners used in one precinct can’t be sent to others because they’re programmed for counting each precinct’s individualized ballots. She estimated overtime, equipment, printing and mailing this year would cost $1 million.

Some county officials felt Harrington wasn’t prepared.

Noting that she’s returned budget money to county coffers every year, Commissioner John Manning said Harrington should rethink that so she’s “adequately prepared.” He said she should have known the ballot would be lengthy.

Commissioner Brian Bigelow scoffed at her explanations, adding: “Sharon is full of excuses with no thread of evidence of willingness to take responsibility for her failings.”

Posted earlier

The Lee County elections supervisor choked up as she apologized Wednesday for problems at some voting precincts Tuesday.

Sharon Harrington said she and her staff never anticipated the large number of people who showed up Tuesday or the ballot scanner problems, such as jamming and ink smearing on rollers when voters fed ballots into the machines.

She said she much preferred the electronic voting system that ended in 2004.

"I plan to continue to lobby our state legislators to change the laws to give election supervisors more flexibility in choosing (early voting) sites and seek funding to provide additional locations through the county," she said.

"Accusations of deliberately suppressing voter turnout or sabotaging this election could not be further from the truth. That's not the way we do business in this office."

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__ Staff writer Sabina Bhasin contributed to this report.

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