Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade to make small fixes to voting precincts, instead of drawing new ones

Miami-Dade County, whose unbalanced precincts contributed to long lines at the polls during the last presidential election, will only redraw a handful of them for midterm elections this fall.

Florida’s elections chief and the American Civil Liberties Union urged the county to redraw all of its precincts, which Miami-Dade had planned to do by 2012.

But county commissioners sided with Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s appointed elections supervisor, Penelope Townsley, who instead proposed a small number of fixes targeting the most crowded ones this year. The remaining precincts would be redrawn next year.

Full “re-precincting” before the August primary would be “operationally impossible,” Townsley said. Commissioners agreed.

“It’s going to basically create a lot of chaos and confusion in the community,” Commissioner Dennis Moss said. “And we’re going to get blamed for that.”

Under Townsley’s compromise, about 69,000 of the county’s 1.3 million registered voters would be assigned a new precinct before this fall’s midterm elections. That’s about 5 percent of voters, compared to the 55 percent that would be affected by drawing new precincts across the county.

“We are confident that this more moderate approach addresses the challenges that we experienced in the November 2012 election,” she said.

Counties typically redistribute voters once every 10 years. Miami-Dade has not done so since 2002.

Broward County has already sent voters new registration cards.

New Miami-Dade precincts were scheduled to go into effect this year. But last month, Gimenez and Townsley said they planned to hold off another year, prompting sharp criticism from the ACLU and the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. Both groups warned about inequitable access to the polls.

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, whose office oversees elections, flew to Miami from Tallahassee to stress the importance of having evenly distributed precincts.

“It’s not a question of if re-precincting should be done in Miami-Dade County, but when,” he told commissioners. ‘“When’ is not later, but I recommend now.”

“Let’s not underestimate the voters of Miami-Dade County,” he added.

After learning of Townsley’s proposed fixes at the meeting — which she called “Plan B” — Detzner said partially redrawing new precincts could alleviate some waits. But in general, the secretary spoke in favor of shifting all voters at once, not piecemeal over two years.

In response to the compromise, Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said he was pleased commissioners acknowledged the importance of preventing another long-line debacle.

“However, the fact that the county has put itself into the position of looking to a ‘Plan B’ to solve the problem is regrettable, since the need for changes has been clear since Election Day, 2012,” he said in a statement reiterating the ACLU’s call for full re-precincting.

Long lines at the November 2012 polls — in some cases up to seven hours long — gave the county another black eye in its infamous elections history. After the mess, Miami-Dade made a big deal out of analyzing what went wrong and how to fix it.

By the county’s own admission, failing to draw new precincts before that election contributed to the problems, as did extra-long ballots and fewer early-voting days. The largest precinct in 2012 had more than 8,000 voters. The smallest had less than 200.

Miami-Dade was supposed to redistribute voters last year. But the elections department had to unexpectedly plan two countywide elections, so the precincts were put off until this year.

The debate over what to do next has not followed partisan lines. While Detzner, a Republican, called for full re-precincting sooner rather than later, Miami Dade GOP Chairman Nelson Diaz said he was wary a rushed process would lead to chaos.

Annette Taddeo-Goldstein, the Miami-Dade Democratic Party chairwoman, toned down her earlier criticism but said she, like Detzner, would prefer redrawing all the lines at once. Gimenez, who was out sick Wednesday, is a Republican, though county positions are nonpartisan.

On the commission, both Republicans and Democrats favored Townsley’s small fixes for this year.

The only exception: Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, a Republican whose district includes downtown Miami, which has seen a population boom over the past decade. One of the largest county precincts is in Brickell.

“There is a substantial amount of new voters,” he said. “For my area, I’m in favor of complete re-precincting.”

Otherwise, Barreiro added, the elections department should plan to devote more resources to large precincts that could still have crowds this year, despite a shorter ballot and historically lower turnout than for presidential elections.

Townsley has said her office intends to set aside more equipment and poll workers to polling places where voters had trouble in the past.

Her compromise would decrease the number of precincts by 239, to 809, and increase the number of polling places by 25, to 564. Some places house more than one precinct. The plan would target large precincts with more than 4,000 voters.

Its price tag: $250,000, compared to the much higher $1.9 million cost estimate for a full re-precincting plan.

According to the elections department, the November 2012 election was about $500,000 over its $11.3 million budget. Though some of that expense came from more employee overtime than expected, the department attributed most of the additional costs to paper and printing. Most ballots were 10 to 12 pages long.