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Voters call for Lee County election supervisor's resignation over long lines

Nov. 7, 2012
Sharon Harrington apologizes
Sharon Harrington apologizes: Lee County Supervisor of Elections Sharon Harrington apologizes for voting problems Nov. 6 during a press conference Nov. 7. Video by Mike Braun.
Frustrated Cape Coral residents wait in line to vote Tuesday. / Sarah Coward/The News-Press
Lee County Supervisor of Elections Sharon Harrington apologized to voters Wednesday for the long waits at the voting precincts. / Andrew West/The News-Press

Sharon Harrington

Title: Lee County Supervisor of Elections
Salary: $122,200 for the 2012-13 fiscal year
Time in office: Almost nine years
Education: Attended Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, and Edison State College


A tearful Sharon Harrington apologized to Lee County’s voters Wednesday, saying she had no way of knowing how congested polling locations would be Tuesday.

Voters waited as long as five hours to cast ballots in Lee County. Some knew President Barack Obama won re-election before they made it through the lines. The last ballot cast by a voter was received at 1:30 a.m. at Precinct 65 in North Fort Myers.

“I was forced to choose between voting and running a business that employs dozens in Lee County alone,” said Richard Pitbladdo, who tried to vote three times in Fort Myers before giving up. “And I chose the latter.”

Voter turnout in Lee County dropped from about 85.3 percent in the 2008 presidential election to 68.7 percent this year. Tuesday’s long lines likely contributed, Harrington said. Now, some angry voters are calling for Harrington’s resignation, which she does not intend to give.

“Nobody could have predicted or foreseen the issues that happened yesterday,” Harrington said Wednesday, “unless they have a crystal ball, which I don’t.”

Harrington, an elected official who has been in office since 2004, said she will seek additional funding from the county to buy more ballot scanners and prevent a repetition of Tuesday’s lines.

But the election office has no lack of funds.

Ballot scanners cost about $5,000, but the election office returned more than $1 million in excess funds to Lee County last year and the year before. This year, the election office has a budget of about $6.2 million.

“For the most part,” said Rae Isley, fiscal officer for the elections office, “what we’ve asked for with the county commissioners is what we’ve received.”

Harrington said she has not sought additional equipment because she thought there would be enough.

Four-page ballots

Harrington said the problems stemmed from a four-page ballot, which is longer than the county has ever seen. Scanning took more time and voters attempted to feed pages too quickly into the scanners, causing jams.

Harrington said she had no idea the ballot would be four pages until after the Aug. 14 primary.

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In Collier County, Tim Durham, deputy election supervisor, said he had an idea eight months ago. As soon as Collier election officials realized there would be 11 amendments, they started planning for the worst-case scenario of a four-page ballot.

“They could have planned whatever they wanted to plan that far ahead,” Harrington said. “We didn’t do that.”

Collier officials brought out 120 scanners Tuesday, more than they had in any previous election. Most Collier precincts had two scanners – some had as many as four.

Even so, some Collier County voters reported long waits.

In Lee County, precincts with more than 3,500 registered voters had two scanners. Those with fewer had one.

Shorter ballot

Collier election officials received permission from the Florida Department of State to relocate a small amendment and consolidate the ballot to three pages instead of four.

“I didn’t even know that was an option,” Harrington said.

Once Harrington’s office realized Lee’s ballot would be four pages, they did suspect the length could cause delays.

“We knew it would take a little longer to scan the four pages,” Harrington said during a Wednesday news conference in Fort Myers, “but we were unprepared for what the reality of the situation ended up being at the polls.”

More machines

Lee County’s election office had more than 50 ballot scanning machines that were not deployed Tuesday. The office deployed 167 scanners, which Harrington said was enough in 2008.

Of the machines not in service, 15 were on standby in case a scanner failed. Five of the standby scanners were deployed Tuesday to replace inoperable scanners, and another five were deployed to ease congestion as lines started to build.

Another 20 scanners the office uses for training were kept in storage because they experienced heavy use before the election. They could break or cause inaccurate counts, Harrington said.

Another 15 scanners used in early voting were kept in storage. They could not be reprogrammed for Election Day use, Harrington said, and were left as-is in case early voting ballots required a recount.

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But Collier County reprogrammed all its early voting scanners for use Tuesday, Durham said. It’s not difficult, he said.

“We don’t have the people,” Harrington said, “to stand there and program and reprogram and program and reprogram.”

Collier and Lee counties use the same model of ballot scanners.

Angry voters

Harrington said she has received accusations since Tuesday that she deliberately suppressed voter turnout and sabotaged the election.

“That’s not the way we do business in this office,” she said during Wednesday’s news conference, which she closed with a tearful apology to voters.

But many have not been appeased by Harrington’s words.

Thomas Hair, a professor at FGCU and former Cape Coral councilman, plans to run against Harrington in 2016.

“Standing in the rain with my 86-year-old mother who lives with me is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Hair said. “When we got done, my dear, sweet mother said to me, ‘Tom, I think this is the last time I’m going to vote.’ ”

Ellen Penar, of North Fort Myers, waited from 2:15 to 7:30 p.m. at her Heron’s Glen precinct. Afterward, she sent a complaint of voter suppression to Secretary of State Ken Detzner.

“Because it’s either voter suppression or incompetence,” Penar said.

“I want to close by apologizing to the voters of Lee County,” Harrington said during Wednesday’s news conference. “Moving forward, I will do whatever it takes to ensure that this does not happen again in Lee County.”

Staff reporter Mary Wozniak contributed to this report.

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