Two days after the Nov. 6 election, a weary Penelope Townsley, the Miami-Dade elections supervisor, stood before a gaggle of reporters who peppered her with pointed questions about what had gone wrong on Election Day.
Her week had been fueled by coffee and adrenaline. She arrived at the office at around 5 a.m. Tuesday and didn’t leave until 9 p.m. Wednesday. No change of clothes, no meals, except for a cup of instant oatmeal her staff insisted she wolf down.
By Thursday’s press conference, Miami-Dade had finished counting absentee ballots. Other counties were still going. The state’s presidential results remained too close to call. Everyone wanted to know what had taken so long, and why some voters had to wait in such slow lines.
The job of answering fell to Townsley, a previously little-known figure in county government thrust into the unforgiving elections spotlight. While admitting some problems, she has staunchly defended her department’s performance in the first presidential election under her charge.
“I think it was generally a very good election,” she said in an interview last week. “We knew it was going to be a challenge going into it.”
But some outsiders have disagreed, noting that Florida — and Miami-Dade and Broward counties in particular — once again became the butt of post-election jokes, and that some voters were deterred by the lengthy waits.
Speaking on Spanish-language television two days after the election, former Miami City Manager Joe Arriola called for Townsley’s ouster.
“Just because Broward County got a double ‘F’, we still got an ‘F’, didn’t we?” Arriola later told The Miami Herald. “This is very poor preparation. I am absolutely adamant that if she’s in charge, she needs to pay the price.”
But Townsley’s boss, County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, has backed his appointee. Unlike in every other county in the state, the Miami-Dade elections supervisor is not elected.
“I’m not going to put everything on her,” Gimenez said after Election Day, when he announced plans to convene a task force to recommend elections improvements.
Townsley said she looks forward to making her case to the task force.
“There was an assumption that things were being delayed and things could have been done faster,” she said of the slow counting. “But you have to be in it to understand.”
Townsley, a 32-year county employee, has been at the helm of elections since October 2011. But this is not her first stint in the department. She worked there for four years under her three predecessors: David Leahy, Constance Kaplan and Lester Sola.
A native of the small town of Molena, Ga. — “One traffic light, one doctor,” she said — Townsley, 56, was raised in Homestead. She graduated from South Dade Senior High School and, after a brief period supervising classified ads for community newspapers, she began working in 1980 in what was then the county architects’ office, as a typist.
Townsley moved up the secretarial ranks, received a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Barry University and then jumped to an administrative role, where she eventually led the department of business and economic development.