Long lines — and a long-winded ballot — made for frustrating voting delays across South Florida on Tuesday.
The worst waits, up to six hours, were in Miami-Dade County, where Mayor Carlos Gimenez showed up at a Brickell Avenue polling place to personally apologize to hundreds still waiting to cast ballots as polls closed at 7 p.m.
“I’m sorry and embarrassed,” Gimenez said. “That should not have happened. That’s something that we have to look at for the next election.”
The problems were nothing like the infamous debacle of 2000, when butterfly ballots, hanging chads and the Bush vs. Gore recount battle made “Flori-duh” a national punch-line. But Tuesday produced a fresh set of headaches in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and other parts of the state.
Elections officials largely blamed a ballot dominated by 11 state constitutional amendment questions sponsored by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature.
Just before 11 p.m., 10 percent of the precincts remained open in Miami-Dade. Elections Supervisor Penelope Townsley said that she didn’t expect final totals until Wednesday afternoon.
Townsley said the ballot — “the largest in Miami-Dade County history” — contributed to the sluggish lines.
‘THIS IS A MESS’
At UTD Towers on Brickell, Gimenez promised to rush in back-up staff and optical scanners to end the voting gridlock that had left hundreds of voters waiting up to six hours to fill out the 10-page ballot. But the last few voters were still in line after 10 p.m.
Workers had trouble finding voters’ names in the registry at the polling site, which hosted two large precincts, and voters complained only two of eight ballot scanners were working at the same time.
“This is a mess,” said Alexandra Lange, a 50-year-old Brickell resident. “There is a bottleneck at the door. It is chaos.”
Brickell elections clerk Daniel Molden blamed the delays on an unexpectedly large turnout. “It’s just a lot of people,” he said. “We had trouble to start with.”
A spokeswoman for Townsley declined to say whether local officials could have done anything differently.
“We do all equipment allocations based on registered voters in a precinct,” said Christina White, deputy supervisor of elections. “We sent more voting booths, more privacy booths and more scanners [to polling places] in this election than any other.”
Elections officials installed 2,050 ballot machines in the county’s 829 precincts, packed into a total of 541 polling places. White said Townsley based those decisions on “space considerations.”
When pressed further about the delays, she said: “I think the long ballot had a lot to do with it.”
Norma Bonilla, 44, found herself in line with hundreds of people at South Kendall Community Church. Lines snaked through the church driveway and around the block, and more than 200 people who had showed up before poll-closing time were still waiting to mark ballots after 10 p.m.
“I’m going to try my best to wait,” said Bonilla, a nurse who had to be at work by 6:15a.m. Wednesday.
Bonilla said she tried to vote early on Saturday — the last day of an early-voting schedule shortened by Gov. Rick Scott — but lines were too long.
At the Church of Christ in Goulds, a predominantly African-American neighborhood in South Miami-Dade, where about 30 people were still in line after 10 p.m., Loyrette Altamirano said that the four-hour wait hadn’t been too bad.
“People have been cracking jokes all night,’’ Altamirano said. “It has been nice. No incidents.’’
Not every precinct had problems. With more than a third of voters turning out early or voting by mail, it was a quick in-and-out for many. Carmen Mendez had only a couple of people in front of her in line when she went to vote at the West Kendall Regional Library on Tuesday afternoon.
“It went smooth, we had seven or eight people in front of us,” said Mendez, 48.
Delays also were hardly unique to Miami-Dade.
At the Walnut Creek Community Association in Pembroke Pines, voters waited in line for up to four hours as the polling place ran out of ballots — until a fresh stock arrived shortly after 6 p.m. Broward County reported shortages in Davie, Coral Springs and in other areas.
“It’s a travesty,” said Linda Garvia, 43, of Pembroke Pines. “It’s hindering people from their right to vote.”
At J.P. Taravella High School in Coral Springs, a two-hour wait was the norm, and 50 voters were still in line at 8 p.m. — all waiting to send their already-completed ballots through the single scanner. “It’s crazy — two hours,” said John Haagensen, 29. “It should be like 20, 30 minutes.”
There were many other, mostly minor, complaints about malfunctioning optical scanners, or precincts that had too few scanners or voting booths, which added to waits. There also was confusion about precinct locations in some areas.
At the North Shore Branch Library in Miami Beach, Jason Altman, 37, showed up at 8:30 a.m. and learned at 10:40 a.m. that he was at the wrong station. It took another 20 minutes for precinct workers to figure out the correct location.
The Miami Beach plastic surgeon, originally from New York, said he was “told to go to the youth center on 72nd Street.” He gave up and headed back to see patients.
Other parts of the state also reported long lines and other goofs, most notably in Pinellas County. Elections officials said more than 12,000 people were wrongly telephoned on Tuesday morning with a message that they had until 7 p.m. “tomorrow” to turn in absentee ballots.
Here’s what happened, according to Nancy Whitlock, a spokeswoman for supervisor Deb Clark: Pinellas officials used an Internet phone system, called CallFire.com, to record messages reminding people of the deadline to turn in mail-in ballots.
On Monday, officials sent out a reminder to 27,917 people saying ballots must be returned by 7 p.m. “tomorrow” — or Tuesday. But for reasons unknown, 12,525 of those calls wound up in a queue and were not placed until between 8 and 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. By then, “tomorrow,” referred incorrectly to Wednesday.