The anxious wait for election results begins when the polls close at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Open web browser. Find results page. Click “refresh.” Again. And again. And again.
Sometimes the waits in Miami-Dade and Broward counties extend well past 10 o’clock. Why, the restless ask, aren’t the numbers posted any faster?
Because counting votes, at least in Florida’s two most populated counties, turns out to be quite labor intensive.
“Even though voting itself is electronic, the actual process of gathering it all, people have to do it,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who appoints his county’s elections supervisor.
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During the low-turnout Aug. 26 primary, the majority of results from Election Day voting in Broward didn’t post until after 9 p.m. Miami-Dade didn’t post its final tallies until around 11 p.m.
In 2012, a problem with Miami-Dade’s only absentee-ballot sorting machine contributed to slow counting in the high-turnout presidential election, which had already been delayed by late precinct closures due to long voting lines. Since then, the county has purchased a new sorting machine to scan more ballots more quickly.
For Tuesday’s midterms, Gimenez said, “I expect the votes to be tallied in a timely fashion.”
On Election Day, voters slide completed ballots into an optical scanning machine. The screen shows how many ballots have been read. A poll worker hands out “I Voted Today” stickers, and voters go on their way.
But once the poll closes — at 7 p.m., or after the last voter in line at 7 p.m. has voted — it’s not as simple as hitting a button on each scanning machine and feeding results to elections headquarters. No such button exists.
Here’s what happens, according to the Miami-Dade elections supervisor (Broward follows a similar process):
Each ballot scanner is shut down. That involves removing a bin that stores the ballots, taking out a thumb drive that contains the electronic results and printing a receipt of those results.
The bin is sealed, with the seal’s serial number recorded as a safeguard against tampering. The thumb drive is put away in a bag, also sealed. That bag must contain the receipt with the result totals, along with one showing zero ballots had been cast when the polls opened.
In Miami-Dade, some large polls have up to three scanners. They all have at least one, and sometimes two, electronic voting machines for voters with disabilities, which must undergo a similar shutdown procedure. A single person in each polling place, the elections specialist, is responsible for shutting them all down, one by one.
That person also disassembles the ballot scanners, collects any provisional ballots in another sealed bag and signs poll-worker payroll forms. Other workers handle putting away the machine for disabled voters, posting the results on the door of the precinct and packing other equipment.
Only then do workers call elections headquarters to say the poll has closed. At this point, no electronic results have been transmitted.
Miami-Dade Elections Supervisor Penelope Townsley said it’s difficult to estimate how long it takes to close a poll.
“If it’s a small precinct — say, one of the smallest precincts we have — it would take at least one hour to complete that process,” she said. “That’s from when the last voter walks out the door.”
After closing, the elections specialist packs his or her own car and drives the ballot bins, provisional-ballots bag, electronic-results bag, payroll and other materials to the nearest collection center. There are 20 regional ones in Miami-Dade and 16 in Broward. There are 812 precincts in Miami-Dade and 577 in Broward, though fewer actual polling places.
At the center, the ballot bins go on a truck. Payroll forms go to a clerk. The thumb drives go to a data technician who transmits the results to headquarters. No Wi-Fi here: Elections staff relies on dedicated phone lines to send the information.
“If you’re the first election specialist to arrive at your collection center, you’re zooming through,” said Christina White, Miami-Dade’s chief deputy elections supervisor. “But if it gets to a point where there’s four or five, then you have to wait.”
The data is received at the elections department’s secured tabulation room. Software aggregates the results from all precincts.
But the software isn’t linked to the online results page. To post the totals, Miami-Dade prints a report with results — and burns them onto a thumb drive — for the department’s web producer. The producer uploads the information and verifies it against the printed report, to ensure accuracy. Only then do the results publish online.
“As soon as I get a handful of results, I’m pushing them out,” Townsley said.
State law requires the first results to be reported to the Florida Division of Elections within 30 minutes after polls begin to close. That’s usually results from ballots cast before Election Day, either by mail or during early voting.
The state must receive updated results every 45 minutes after that until all ballots — except provisional ones — are counted. Townsley said Miami-Dade has always met or exceeded that requirement. “We have not received any complaints about the timeliness of our results reporting,” she said.
The department’s goal is to report accurate results, Townsley added.
“I don’t focus on the time,” she said. “My focus is accuracy and the integrity of the process, and there are so many intricate parts to ensuring that the results are reported correctly that I just can’t sacrifice the quality assurance that we put into this process for the sake of speed.”