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High voting turnout for Lee County, poll workers made minor mistakes

The Florida presidential preference primaries on Tuesday, March 15 pulled 46 percent of registered voters to the polls. It was the highest number of voters for a presidential preference primary in 40 years, according to the Florida Department of State. Those voters created a victory for Republican candidate Donald Trump, with 45.7 percent of his party’s vote, and Hillary Clinton, with 64.4 percent of her party’s vote.

Lee County, with a population of 679,513 people as of the 2014 census and 424,754 registered voters, saw 53 percent of its Republicans and Democrats cast a ballot in the primaries. Florida is a closed state in which only members of a party can vote in that party’s primary. Of Florida’s 424,754 voters, 296,869 are registered as either a Republican or a Democrat and thus were eligible to vote in a primary election March 15.

Supervisor of Lee County Elections Sharon Harrington said she was expecting an even higher turnout because of the “excitement” of this primary.

“Pretty much average (turnout) for a primary, but I really thought we’d have more people at the polls,” Harrington said. “It started out so early, and the fact that both Republicans and Democrats are running, I mean, it’s a clean slate. It’s not a given that the sitting president is going to be there. It’s wide open for anybody to take the seat, so I thought there’d be a lot more activity on it.”

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Although Harrington said she was disappointed with the Lee County turnout, Lee did have a higher turnout among Republicans and Democrats than neighboring Hendry County’s 33.53 percent and Charlotte’s 48.7 percent. Lee had higher turnout than both Florida’s most populated county, Miami-Dade, with 41.75 percent, and its least populated county, Liberty, with 29.77 percent of registered Republicans and Democrats voting. Neighboring county Collier did have a higher turnout than Lee, with 80.6 percent of eligible primary voters casting a ballot.

FGCU political science professor Joseph Ross said one cause of Lee County’s high turnout might be its high population of elderly voters.

“The older someone is,” Ross said, “the more likely they are to vote.”

While age is one factor, Ross said a factor affecting state-wide and national turnout could be the appeal of Republican candidate Donald Trump to people with extreme views.

“He’s appealing to a perspective that isn’t usually represented,” Ross said.

While Trump has come across as conservative on some issues, such as immigration, he takes a more liberal approach to other issues, such as raising taxes on the wealthy.

Ross said that these diverging extremes appeal to people who don’t completely identify with one party.

Ross said the downside to this appeal is that the solutions Trump promotes are unrealistic.

“Any candidate can say the things he’s saying; no candidate could deliver on the things he’s saying,” Ross said. “There’s a belief in what he’s saying in spite of the facts.”

One piece of advice Ross had for voters is to read their news instead of watching it to get a more in-depth look at candidates. He also said voters should make their own informed decisions, rather than take other opinions into the voting booth.

“Find out for yourself,” Ross said. “Don’t listen to other people. Draw your own conclusions.”

Local voter engagement may also be higher because of the variety of ways local elections offices reached out to eligible voters. Lee County Elections public relations officer Vicki Collins said her office began promoting the election and registration before the first mail ballots were sent out to overseas voters.

“We did a lot on social media, and we paid for a lot of advertising to let people know that it was the last day to select their parties and so forth,” Collins said.

Collins and Harrington were happy to see a low number of incidences that could put the final Lee County results of the election into question. With new voting equipment for disabled voters, new poll workers, new software and the first use of wireless modems to send results back to the elections center from every precinct, the duo said a lot of backups were in place. For example, when two precincts were sending a wireless low signal to the tabulation center, workers in those centers used a flash drive to transfer final results to the center.

The elections office hired about 1,200 poll workers for the election, and while they generally get a lot of return poll workers, Harrington said there were a lot of new workers this time.

One poll worker in Fort Myers Beach gave out 14 extra presidential ballots before one voter told the office. Fort Myers Beach voters had two pages worth of amendments on their ballots, and a poll worker who did not realize the presidential preference vote was already on those two pages handed out 14 extra forms.

“Of course, once they’re in the ballot box, there’s nothing we can do,” Harrington said. “They’re there. We wouldn’t know which ones to pull because there are no names or anything on them.”

Harrington said only minor mistakes were made by poll workers, and she hopes many of them come back for future elections.

“We’re getting them pretty much trained for November, but they’ll work August as well,” Harrington said. “And, hopefully, by November, they’ll feel a lot more comfortable with what they’re doing.”

Harrington also said there is voter error to consider in the turnout. For example, hundreds of mail-in ballots have already been rejected because voters forgot to sign the back of their return envelope, or that signature did not match the signature the office has on file. Those ballots do not count toward election results.

Ross said that while the Republican National Committee might select a candidate other than Trump to continue on to the general presidential elections in November, he does think the high primary turnout could mean a high voter turnout for the upcoming presidential election.

“I think we will see a higher turnout regardless, because there’s a lot of strong feelings on both sides,” Ross said.

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