Miami-Dade to Florida elections chief: Help us make election fixes

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner met Tuesday with Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Elections Supervisor Penelope Townsley to go over election problems, and how they could be fixed.

12/11/2012 1:18 PM

12/11/2012 7:25 PM

Miami-Dade’s mayor and elections supervisor asked Florida’s secretary of state on Tuesday to relay three requests to Tallahassee to try to fix last month’s elections woes:

Extend the number of early-voting days. Allow early-voting sites to open at locations other than public libraries and city halls. And cap the number of words in state constitutional amendments on the ballot.

Those changes to state law, Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Elections Supervisor Penelope Townsley said, could help prevent some of the embarrassing problems that plagued the Nov. 6 presidential election, in which some Miami-Dade voters waited in line for seven hours and wrangled with a 10- to 12-page ballot.

“We can’t have any more ‘one-size-fits-all’ elections,” Gimenez said.

But will the pleas from the state’s largest county be heard in Florida’s Capitol?

Secretary of State Ken Detzner said he would carry Miami-Dade’s message to Gov. Rick Scott, who tasked the state’s chief elections officer with visiting five problematic counties and drafting recommendations for improvement. Those suggestions, however, would then require the approval of state legislators who wrote the elections laws in the first place.

Separately, Gimenez has convened a local advisory group to make its own recommendations to the county and the state. The group, which is still awaiting the elections department’s after-action report, meets for the second time Friday.

“There are some things that we’re going to need from the state, but a lot of the things that happened can be rectified here in Miami-Dade County,” Gimenez told reporters Tuesday.

Even some of those local changes that do not require tweaking state laws, including opening more early-voting sites for presidential elections and switching from printed voter registries to electronic ones, could be made easier with more state funding.

At the state level, the Miami-Dade officials criticized a law the governor signed last year that reduced the number of early voting days to eight from 14 and eliminated early voting the Sunday before Election Day.

The law also guaranteed one Sunday of early voting and kept the overall number of early-voting hours on the books — 96 — the same. In practice, there were 120 hours of early voting in 2008 after then-Gov. Charlie Crist extended them.

Neither Gimenez nor Townsley, his appointed elections chief, requested that the hours be extended this year, despite early-voting lines of up to seven hours long. But both have since said they support returning to the previous, 14-day early-voting schedule.

Acknowledging that other, smaller counties may not require as many days, or that two weeks of early voting may be necessary only during presidential elections, Gimenez and Townsley asked Detzner to consider recommending a more flexible state law that would give counties the leeway to adapt based on the election.

Even one more day of early voting — the Sunday before Election Day, typically a high-turnout day for largely Democratic, African-American voters — could go a long way if state law also was amended to allow early-voting sites in locations other than just city halls and public libraries, the mayor said.

Gimenez, a Republican in a non-partisan post, said that the effect of the election law changes pushed by the GOP-controlled Legislature was to suppress the vote.

“We had fewer people going to early vote than back in 2008, when we had 14 days and we had two Sundays,” he said. “If they wanted to do it on purpose or not, I don’t know.”

He also noted that while fewer Miami-Dade voters cast ballots early, more did so by mail — in part thanks to a Democratic Party push.

Tuesday’s meeting, which lasted an hour and a half, covered a wide range of issues, from parking problems at early-voting sites to the exhaustion of early-voting poll workers on 16-hour shifts.

Detzner, who praised Gimenez’s advisory committee, would not commit to any recommendations, with pending visits Wednesday to Broward and Palm Beach, and to St. Lucie on Thursday. He met with Lee County officials Tuesday morning, and with Hillsborough elections administrators, who ran a generally smooth election, on Monday.

“We’re not here to find blame,” Detzner said. “We’re here to find solutions.”

He called giving counties flexibility on early-voting sites and hours a “universal theme,” and also recounted that other counties, in addition to Miami-Dade, reported problems with the post office delivering absentee ballots late.

And he agreed with Miami-Dade officials that fixes that might work for South Florida may not work elsewhere.

“The challenges in a large urban area like this are very different,” he said.

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