When the White House held a press call Thursday touting the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, it put three people on the phone: Attorney General Loretta Lynch, presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett and ... Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
Miami-Dade’s senior Republican was tapped to highlight the county’s efforts to fix the debacle of Election Day in 2012, when thousands of voters waited hours in lines at overwhelmed precincts.
“It is a county that had challenges in the past, and they worked really hard to overcome those challenges,” Jarrett said. “We wanted to put the spotlight on a model that shows you can improve.”
The call was an auxiliary media event for the day, which featured President Barack Obama calling on congressional Republicans to update the legislation during his own teleconference with Lynch and voting-rights activists. But Gimenez’s appearance with Lynch and Jarrett was notable for handing the mayor exclusive use of the White House media microphone to run through the details of Miami-Dade’s election challenges and fixes.
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During the call, he cited “significant issues and disruptions” in 2012 that made voting a “very uncomfortable and a very lengthy process.”
“A number of our polling places actually had two or three precincts. That caused a lot of problems,” he said. Regarding voter-registration books, “we found the old manual system was very complicated. That was actually the choke point for many of our polling places.”
Gimenez listed a string of improvements his administration had announced during the past 12 months. That includes a re-precincting effort that will mean new polling places for about 12 percent of the county’s 1.3 million registered voters. Miami-Dade also will arm poll workers with digital registration information to avoid the choke point caused by the old paper system, Gimenez said.
On the call, Gimenez also highlighted a sore spot for some Republicans in Florida: Sunday voting. In 2012, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and fellow Republicans in the Legislature barred early voting on the Sunday before Election Day, eliminating the Democrat-heavy turnout effort centered on black churches known as “Souls to the Polls.”
For the 2016 presidential election, Gimenez said countywide early-voting sites would increase from 20 to 30, running eight hours a day. That includes “the Sunday before Election Day, which we know is very important to many of our residents.”
Florida restored the Sunday early-voting option in 2014, and last year’s gubernatorial election brought none of the delays that drew national embarrassment to Miami-Dade during the election that eventually saw Obama defeat Mitt Romney in Florida by fewer than 80,000 votes.
Gimenez holds a nonpartisan post, and faces his own reelection in 2016 in an August primary open to all candidates. While he publicly flirted with the notion of leaving the Republican Party last year to become an independent, he’s planning to support Jeb Bush in the 2016 presidential race, according to people close to the mayor.
With the potential for a hometown Republican on the presidential ballot in a county known for massive Democratic turn-out, 2016 could be the biggest test yet for Miami-Dade’s precincts. Recently, the state elections division wrote to Gimenez with concerns about the pending retirement of the county’s elections supervisor a few months before the August primary. Gimenez said he plans to appoint a successor this fall.
Gimenez told reporters on the call that he’s confident that past problems have been fixed.
“We are committed to making sure the troubles we had in 2012 never happen again,” he said.