Retooled early voting begins Monday in Miami-Dade

A new Florida elections law, and changes adopted by Miami-Dade and Broward, are intended to make things go more smoothly than they did two years ago.

08/09/2014 4:57 PM

08/11/2014 5:20 PM

Miami-Dade County, with its slow counting of ballots and waits of up to six hours to vote, remembers all too well being the butt of late-night TV jokes in the 2012 presidential election.

For this year’s Aug. 26 statewide primary, elections administrators hope to avoid a similar sorry sight.

It should be easy. Early voting will get under way Monday with more days and more locations — but probably far fewer voters.

Shamed into action by the record wait times at early voting sites in 2012, the Florida Legislature retooled a state law to give county elections supervisors more flexibility in hours and locations, which they had demanded for years.

Counties must now offer at least eight days of early voting for eight hours a day, and may expand to 14 days for up to 12 hours a day. They also may use a wider variety of sites, such as fairgrounds and community centers, in addition to libraries, city halls and elections offices that continue to be the mainstays of early voting.

As a result, schedules vary widely, from 123.5 hours in the Florida Keys to 64 hours in Pasco and Hernando counties.

Only three counties will offer a maximum 14 days of early voting in the primary: Charlotte, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade. Broward has scheduled 10 days.

“All of our decisions are made based on the convenience of the voter,” said Christina White, a Miami-Dade deputy supervisor of elections. “We saw the effects of the condensed days in the last presidential election. Fourteen days provides the most convenience to the voter.”

Early voting will begin at 7 a.m. Monday in Miami-Dade and at 11 a.m. Friday in Broward. Both counties plan to open 20 sites, including some new ones that are roomier and offer more parking.

In Miami-Dade, the four new sites are the Aventura Government Center, Homestead Community Center, Miami Beach City Hall and Miami Lakes Community Center.

Broward added Coral Ridge Mall in Fort Lauderdale, Sunrise Senior Center, Parkland YMCA and Emma Lou Olson Civic Center in Pompano Beach.

Only two statewide races have generated much voter interest: the Democratic primaries for governor, between Charlie Crist and Nan Rich; and attorney general, between George Sheldon and Perry Thurston.

In the only statewide race on the Republican primary ballot, Gov. Rick Scott has two long-shot Republican challengers, Yinka Abosede Adeshina and Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder.

So turnout is expected to be low, around 20 percent. More than half of all votes are likely to be cast by mail or at early voting sites.

“Voters are creatures of habit,” said Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley. “Once people discover early voting, they tend to stick with it.”

Voters can cast ballots at any early voting site in their county of residence.

Miami-Dade and Broward each will provide early voting through Sunday, Aug. 24.

That’s another change the Republican-dominated Legislature made in 2013. Two years earlier, lawmakers abolished early voting on the Sunday before the election, known as “souls to the polls.” It was especially popular with African-American churches, where most voters are Democrats.

More days and new locations — and a much shorter ballot — should make early voting go more smoothly. Other changes are geared at improving the experience on Primary Election Day, Aug. 26.

Broward redrew precincts, which counties do once a decade to evenly distribute voters. Miami-Dade, which hasn’t reorganized its precincts since 2002, again delayed doing so, opting instead to move around a small portion of voters to alleviate overcrowding.

Six percent of Miami-Dade registered voters — about 90,000 people — were mailed voter cards with new precincts. The county also sent those voters a follow-up letter with a photograph and map of their new locations.

There are other changes in Miami-Dade, too.

In the wake of the 2012 embarrassment, the county spent about $5 million on new elections equipment. It purchased a sorting machine that scans more mailed ballots more quickly. Now Miami-Dade has two sorters that can back each other up if one falters, as happened two years ago.

The elections department is also testing software that detects whether voter signatures on mailed ballots match those on file, though staffers will still make the final determination.

Also new: enough electronic poll books to sign in voters at every precinct on Election Day — and not just during early voting.

Gone are pen-and-paper registers that contributed to precinct bottlenecks two years ago. Instead, poll workers will swipe a driver’s license or other form of ID to verify identity, and the voter will use a stylus to sign an electronic signature pad, like those used by retailers.

In 2012, Broward already had enough electronic devices — sold by VR Systems in Tallahassee and known as EVID, for electronic voter identification — for all of its precincts.

Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Bousquet of the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau at bousquet@tampabay.com.

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