Miami-Dade delays drawing new election precincts — again

01/30/2014 6:34 PM

01/30/2014 8:19 PM

Miami-Dade voters endured lines up to seven hours long during the last presidential election in part because the county delayed a key once-a-decade decision to evenly divide voters among precincts.

Now, with a looming gubernatorial election in November, the county plans to delay the decision once again.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez and his appointed elections supervisor, Penelope Townsley, said Thursday they have decided to push back “re-precincting” until early 2015.

The reason: The county thinks the reshuffle would be too much to handle in the same year that Miami-Dade plans to install new electronic sign-in books at every polling place.

“We’re trying to cram in too much at one time,” Gimenez told his elections advisory group Thursday. “We don’t want to create that confusion.”

That’s the same reason Gimenez and Townsley, after consulting with county commissioners, decided against the new precincts in early 2012. The uneven distribution contributed to the long lines, as did the 10- to 12-page ballot and fewer early-voting days.

The numbers were so unbalanced that some precincts, such as one at Jefferson Reaves Sr. Park in Brownsville, had 193. The largest, at South Kendall Community Church in Country Walk, had 8,303.

This time, the mayor and elections chief said they hope to ease voters into new precincts next year, when several smaller municipal elections will be held. The first countywide election under the new scheme would be the January 2016 presidential primary.

Not redrawing precincts could still cause problems this year, especially for voters stuck in the largest precincts, said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida who studied Miami-Dade’s 2012 presidential election data.

“It’s really short-sighted, and it puts people’s voting rights at risk, if you’re packing that many voters in some of these precincts,” Smith said.

Once every decade, state and local governments redraw legislative districts based on updated population data. Precincts are supposed to be redrawn soon after that so that all voters casting ballots in a precinct fall in the same districts.

Otherwise, voters in a single precinct may require different types of ballots, delaying voting.

A preliminary analysis Smith conducted Thursday showed that, in Miami-Dade, the number of registered voters per precinct had a significant negative effect on Election Day voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election.

For every 100 more registered voters in a precinct, turnout dropped 0.7 percent. That may not sound like much, Smith said, but it means that for every 1,000 more registered voters in a precinct, turnout dropped 7 percent.

“Bigger polling stations tend to have longer lines,” Smith said. “They’re processing more people. It’s not rocket science.”

After how badly things went in the last presidential election — Miami-Dade became the butt of late-night jokes across the country — county leaders vowed change.

Yet new precincts weren’t drawn last year, because two special countywide elections popped up: one in May asked voters to help fund a renovation for the Miami Dolphins’ stadium, which was called off at the last minute, and another one in November asked voters to help fund improvements to the Jackson Health System.

Broward Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes, who is elected and not appointed, began re-precincting last year and has already mailed voters new registration cards.

Moving voters around is never popular among politicians, who fear backlash from inconvenienced constituents and accusations of attempted voter suppression. But the longer the new precincts are put off, the more uneven the distribution of voters becomes, which means more of them will have to be switched.

The county’s 2012 plan for new precincts would have reshuffled more than a quarter of the electorate. Today, the plan would reshuffle about 55 percent of all of Miami-Dade’s 1.3 million registered voters, though only about 27 percent of voters who cast ballots on Election Day.

The plan would cap the number of voters to 2,500 per precinct. In 2012, nearly a fifth exceeded that number.

“It is clear that the number of registered voters is spread inconsistently across polling locations countywide,” Townsley wrote in a December 2012 report analyzing what went wrong in the presidential election.

Townsley was ready to proceed with the new precincts before meeting this month with commissioners and the mayor. But Gimenez told the Miami Herald that when he asked elections staff if it would be more prudent to delay the plan, they said yes.

“This is an operational decision,” he said. “I feel it’s the best thing we can do, not to bite off more than we can chew.”

Members of Gimenez’s advisory group — which includes four commissioners, two Democrats and two Republicans — had no problem with again putting off new precincts. Gimenez is a Republican.

“The least amount of folks that are affected, in my opinion — in my district — the better,” said Commissioner Dennis Moss, a Democrat who represents a portion of deep Southwest Miami-Dade.

By holding off for a year, Miami-Dade might reduce the number of voters affected, Gimenez said. After November, the county will have fresh data showing how long voters waited with new electronic sign-in books in place.

The devices will require extensive training for poll workers, many of them older and less accustomed to technology, Townsley said. The electronic books are already used at early-voting sites and for some municipal elections.

Asking poll workers to use the new books and also direct voters to new precincts could be overwhelming, Gimenez said.

He doesn’t fear long lines because the electronic books will speed things up, he said, and because turnout in gubernatorial elections has historically been lower than in presidential ones.

Still, leaving large precincts intact means Miami-Dade will have to marshal more resources to those polling places.

“I don’t want to have a problem for the governor’s race,” Gimenez said.

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