Miami-Dade County

For Miami-Dade’s early vote, redemption from a debacle

Desiline Victor, 105, with her son, Mathieu Pierre-Louis, Sunday at the North Miami polling place where she waited three hours to vote in 2012.
Desiline Victor, 105, with her son, Mathieu Pierre-Louis, Sunday at the North Miami polling place where she waited three hours to vote in 2012. dhanks@miamiherald.com

Four years ago, Clemene Gerome waited hours to get this close to the front door of the North Miami library and vote early in a presidential election. On Sunday, Gerome’s spot marked the back of the line, and she was happy to hear it would probably take about 45 minutes to make it to the front.

“I’m feeling better today,” said Gerome, 49, of Miami Shores. “In 2012, I stood in line for four hours. Here. It was amazing.”

Once a national embarrassment for Miami-Dade, early voting in 2016 has shifted to a bragging right as election officials point to both record turnout and what they say are the lowest average waits recorded in the county since the early in-person voting debuted in 2004.

In 2012, I stood in line for four hours. Here. It was amazing.

Clemene Gerome, who voted early in 2012 and 2016

“The phrase I’ve heard the most is ‘in and out,’ ’’ said Christina White, head of Miami-Dade’s Elections Department. “The number of voters who have gone out of their way to thank us has been nice to see.”

Sunday’s final day of early voting tested Miami-Dade’s beefed-up system. The day brought a last-minute surge of early voters. Waits were reported crossing the one-hour mark that county officials had set as a worst-case goal for 2016.

But as of late afternoon, no reports had come close to the debacle of 2012, when polling places across Miami-Dade recorded wait times of six hours on the final day of early voting, according to a 2013 study.

Twelve pages of ballot material and a state-mandated reduction in early-voting days got much of the blame that year. But Miami-Dade’s 2016 preparations highlight how Florida’s largest county wasn’t ready for the growing popularity of early voting four years ago.

For 2016, Miami-Dade had a record 30 early-voting sites, up from 20 in 2012. Thanks largely to Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-led Legislature backing off the 2012 state caps, Miami-Dade voters this year had 168 hours to vote early over 14 days. Four years ago, it was just 96 hours over eight days. A shorter ballot does help: Instead of six double-sided pages as in 2012, the 2016 ballot tops out at three pages for most Miami-Dade voters.

Miami-Dade budgeted $26 million for its Election Department this year — $3 million more than it budgeted four years ago.

Miami-Dade also boosted spending on equipment needed to speed the process inside the early-voting sites. A Sept. 29 memo by White said the county doubled the number of check-in stations and ballot printers for each polling place, and “significantly increased” the number of privacy booths voters use to fill out their ballots. While Miami-Dade budgeted $23 million for its Election Department in 2012, this year that figure increased about 13 percent to $26 million.

“There are long lines today, but that’s to be expected,” Christian Ulvert, a political consultant who mostly works with Democratic candidates in the Miami area, said Sunday. “In 2012, you had three- or four-hour waits, pretty consistently. The fact that you’re not seeing that this year means there’s improvement.”

Gihan Perera, director of New Florida Majority, spent Sunday on a get-out-the-vote effort in Democratic-heavy precincts and said he’s been pleased with Miami-Dade’s performance at polling places. “It’s largely been a smooth operation,” he said. He said waits on Sunday were the longest and averaged around 45 minutes to an hour. “That’s a long wait,” he said. “But it’s not the three-, four-, or five-hour mark we saw in 2012.”

White said she did not have firm figures on wait times, but that the average delay for the entire early-voting stretch ranged from zero to 15 minutes.

460,000Early voters through Saturday. Initial estimates were that another 50,000 voted Sunday.

The close of Sunday’s final day of early voting brought reports of lines lasting more than an hour at the county’s busiest polling place, the West Dade library, and at the Kendall library, according to the Elections website. Through Friday, more than 26,000 people had voted at West Dade. It also was the most popular spot on Friday, when a total of 42,870 Miami-Dade voters cast their ballots countywide — a record. In all, Miami-Dade reported more than 460,000 early voters through Saturday. Early estimates from Sunday showed it setting a new record, with about 50,000 ballots cast, said Carolina Lopez, Miami-Dade’s deputy elections chief.

At the John F. Kennedy Library in Hialeah on Sunday, the line for the polling entrance stretched halfway around the building. Joe Perez, 49, lives nearby and said early voting let him cast his ballot without conflicting with a workday. “I have a lot of jobs. I needed today,” he said. “I canceled yesterday because of the rain.” Perez, who said his main job is at a Hialeah print shop, waited about 30 minutes to enter the polling place.

Delays in 2012 were so severe that they earned national attention, including an indirect scolding from the White House. President Barack Obama invited Desiline Victor, then 102, to his 2013 State of the Union address a few months after she waited three hours to vote at the North Miami library on Oct. 28, 2012.

Her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say.

President Obama in 2012, speaking of Desiline Victor’s three-hour wait to vote

“Her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet,” Obama said of Victor’s early-voting day in Miami-Dade, “but whether folks like her would get to have their say.”

On Sunday, Victor was back at North Miami, ready to vote early again.

This time, she arrived by limousine to a ceremony waiting to honor her. With a bongo player singing a Creole song, and a processional behind her, Victor sat silently in her wheelchair as she glided past a much shorter line than what awaited her four years earlier. Election officials allowed her to head directly to the balloting area this time. It sits in a special area of the library called “Desiline Victor Voting Wing,” a standing tribute to Miami-Dade’s epic voting delays and one woman’s endurance to have her say.

“If she can do it at this age, anyone can,” son Mathieu Pierre-Louis said during Sunday’s ceremony. “Last time she said she didn’t know if she’d make it to the next election. She made it. It wasn’t easy for her, but she did it.”

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