Miami-Dade

Miami-Dade: One hour wait is new goal for major elections

 

A task force led by County Mayor Carlos Gimenez recommended a host of reforms, including allowing voters to drop off absentee ballots at their polling stations on Election Day.

crabin@MiamiHerald.com

The election benchmark has been set.

If Miami-Dade County meets its new goal, voters won’t have to pack a lunch when they go to the polls for presidential elections. Election honchos say they’re striving to keep the wait for casting a ballot to just one hour.

“We feel one hour is reasonable, aspirational,” County Elections Supervisor Penelope Townsley said Friday. “This is our goal.”

Townsley and 13 other people have been meeting as the Elections Advisory Group since November, searching for ways to shrink the long lines and fix other problems that marred the November presidential election.

Friday they added three new recommendations to a list of 13 that need local and state approval. The task force, headed by County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, proposed expanding early voting from eight to 14 days and including the Sunday before the election, allowing all U.S. citizens to be precinct workers even if they don’t live in Miami-Dade, and allowing absentee ballots to be dropped off at a voter’s precinct — not only at election headquarters — on Election Day.

The number of early-voting days has been a sticking point. Despite Townsley’s recommendation to reinstate 14 early-voting days, county commissioners decided not to ask the Legislature for that number because of the long odds in Tallahassee. The county asked for only nine days.

Then, Gov. Rick Scott, who had cut back the number, proposed a return to 14.

Now it’s back in the county commission’s court. The proposals, set during a two-hour meeting at County Hall, will be sent to the 13-member board, which can vote to amend its legislative package and include the items. State legislators begin meeting in early March.

Some of the group’s ideas have already found support among Miami-Dade’s state legislators. Democratic Sen. Gwen Margolis has filed a bill that would expand voting days from eight to 14, and allow more early voting sites.

Gimenez strongly supported another board recommendation that would require new technology for the county’s electronic voting machines, enabling them to process absentee ballots. The measure would allow voters to drop off absentee ballots at their polling sites on Election Day.

“It’s like a fast pass at Disney World,” the mayor said.

Added advisory group member and County Commissioner Dennis Moss: “This has the potential to really change voting in this town.”

Gimenez created the task force in November after South Florida again became a punch line for comedians lampooning Election Day voter lines. Voters from Brickell to South Miami-Dade stood in line until well after midnight — in some cases after election results had been called. More than 800,000 of the county’s 1.2 million registered voters cast ballots that day.

Gimenez blamed the delays on lengthy ballots and the elections department not adjusting polling sites properly to coordinate with redistricting that had recently taken place.

Of the advisory groups 13 recommendations to county commissioners, seven need legislative approval.

The task force wants commissioners to send the legislature a package that would also ask the state to expand permissible voting sites, limit ballot language on constitutional amendments to 15 words, extend the number of days elections supervisors are permitted to canvass ballots from 15 to 20, and to change the term “absentee ballot.”

The group believes “vote by mail” is more descriptive, saying absentee voting is a misnomer because Florida no longer requires that voters provide a reason — such as being ill or out of town — for voting by mail.

Other recommendations from the group — which can be approved by the county commission or the administration — include training more county employees as polls workers, improving technology, increasing the number of early voting sites, and expanding outreach services to educate the community.

Implementing the changes won’t come cheap for the county. One estimate if all the requests are implemented is close to $10 million. Just expanding early voting and being able to hand in absentee ballots at individual precincts on Election Day could cost more than $5 million.

“We have issues in the budget, but I think we can overcome them,’’ Gimenez said. “But it’s too early for me to tell you for certain.”

The mayor thanked the group and said he’d like to keep it as a regular body that can meet when necessary, perhaps to check out new voting machines, or after an election to review the results.

Read more Political Currents stories from the Miami Herald

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