Miami-Dade County

Presidential commission probes Florida voting lines, which study shows were longest for Hispanics

Hispanic voters waited longer at the polls last November than any other ethnic group, a statewide study has concluded, with black voters also experiencing longer delays than whites.

The study, submitted Friday in Coral Gables to a bipartisan election reform commission created by President Barack Obama, found that precincts with a greater proportion of Hispanic voters closed later on Nov. 6 than precincts with predominantly white ones. In some cases, blacks also had longer waits than whites.

The 10-member Presidential Commission on Election Administration met at a day-long session at the University of Miami to hear from Florida elections supervisors, political science professors and the public about how the government can help avoid delays at the polls.

“Everyone we’ve talked to from all levels, from all disciplines, says you can’t have a one-size-fit-all solution,” said Ben Ginsberg, who co-chairs the commission with Bob Bauer. Both are Washington D.C.-based elections attorneys with extensive experience advising presidential candidates and political parties.

Obama tasked the commission in May with identifying successful elections procedures and making recommendations for improvement by the end of the year. The commission held its first hearing in Washington last week and plans future meetings in Denver, Philadelphia and a still-unnamed city in Ohio.

Advancement Project, a left-leaning civil-rights advocacy organization, submitted the study by Michael Herron of Dartmouth and Daniel Smith of the University of Florida. The researchers examined Election Day closing times at 85 percent of the state’s precincts, where more than 92 percent of the 3.7 million Floridians who voted cast their ballots. They also reviewed wait times at early-voting sites in Miami-Dade.

The study found that, on average, 73 minutes passed between the 7 p.m. close of the polls and the time when the final voter in line cast his or her ballot in Miami-Dade. In Broward, which has a larger proportion of white voters than other large Florida counties, the average was 25 minutes.

In addition to Election Day disparities, for both Hispanics and blacks the waits were especially long the Saturday before Election Day, which was the last day of early voting.

“There were clear racial patterns of long lines in Miami-Dade in early voting as well as Election Day,” Smith, who was not at the hearing, told the Miami Herald.

A separate study, requested by the presidential commission from the nonpartisan Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, noted state-by-state voting problems and highlighted issues in Miami-Dade as well as in Orlando’s Orange County and Tampa’s Hillsborough County. Among them: insufficient electronic poll registries to check-in voters at precincts, cramped early-voting sites in small libraries and city halls, and poorly trained poll workers.

Some Miami-Dade voters waited between five and eight hours to cast ballots during early voting and Election Day. A county review later blamed a variety of factors, including an unusually long ballot, fewer early-voting days and ill-prepared precincts.

Miami-Dade Elections Supervisor Penelope Townsley explained her department’s findings to commission members — and handed them copies of the 12-page county ballot. The commission also heard from and asked questions of supervisors from Broward, Palm Beach, Orange, Bay and Okaloosa counties and from Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, whose agency oversees elections.

“From a statewide perspective, I believe Floridians had a positive election experience in 2012,” Detzner said, though he also conceded, “In some cases, I found that the most fundamental function of elections administration failed.”

Three political science professors who are experts in elections also delivered presentations, including Charles Stewart III of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard University, who concluded from their research that Florida had the longest waits in the country — an average of 39 minutes. The shortest wait was two minutes, in Vermont.

They also found that black and Hispanic voters stood in line nearly twice as long as whites.

“It’s not so much that individual minority voters are being discriminated against,” Stewart told the commission. “It’s that the places where minority voters tend to vote have long lines. In those areas, even white voters have long lines.”

Desiline Victor, the 102-year-old North Miami voter Obama invited to his State of the Union address earlier this year, was scheduled to speak at the hearing but did not end up attending. Other members of the public, many of them affiliated with voting groups, did.

One of them, Alma Gonzalez, special counsel to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees labor union, urged the commission to propose standards to keep Florida out of the elections limelight in 2016.

“We do not want to continue to be some joke,” she said.