At long last, Miami-Dade County plans to finish drawing new voter precincts, a once-a-decade task that contributed to waits of up to seven hours outside the polls on Election Day in 2012.
Later this year, the Miami-Dade elections department plans to send updated registration cards to the county’s nearly 1.3 million voters. About 12 percent of them will find they’ve been moved to a different polling place, under a proposal scheduled for county commissioners’ approval Tuesday.
That’s far less than the 55 percent of voters Elections Supervisor Penelope Townsley said last year would be displaced in 2015. Her office redrew a minimal number of precinct boundaries — only the ones of the most crowded precincts — to displace as few voters as possible before the 2014 gubernatorial election.
Last year’s moves, coupled with the purchase of electronic voter sign-in devices and the expansion of early voting, proved more effective than expected, so Townsley’s department no longer intends to be as aggressive in redrawing the rest of the precincts. There were no embarrassing lines last November.
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Her more modest proposal is better because it affects fewer voters, Townsley told commissioners last week.
“It costs less,” she added. “It provides more compact precincts with improved voter distribution across the county.”
Voters should get notifications about their new precincts in August or September — ahead of municipal elections in Virginia Gardens, Miami, Miami Beach, Hialeah and Homestead — and then receive a reminder in January, ahead of the March 2016 presidential primary, which could feature two Miami Republicans, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.
The revised plan, which will cost about $2 million instead of $4 million, is comforting to commissioners and leaders of both Miami-Dade political parties, who have all feared massive voter displacement could hurt their candidates at the polls. That’s why the county delayed “re-precincting” before the 2012 election — a decision that, in retrospect, left some polling places overwhelmed with voters. Miami-Dade became the butt of many a late-night comedian’s jokes.
“We want to make sure we have the least amount of disruption,” said state Sen. Dwight Bullard, who represents South Dade and is also the Miami-Dade Democratic Party chairman.
Townsley met Bullard and Republican Party Chairman Nelson Diaz in Tallahassee earlier this year to lay out re-precincting options and get their input.
“We want to get it out of the way now, because there’s a presidential primary next year,” Diaz said.
When the county again put off drawing all its new precincts in 2014 — a delay induced by two unexpected countywide referendum elections in 2013 — Democrats and Republicans, including the state’s elections chief, criticized Miami-Dade for dawdling. Townsley and the man who appointed her, County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Republican in a nonpartisan post, then agreed to address the congestion at only the largest precincts.
Florida requires counties to redistribute voters every 10 years after statewide reapportionment, a process that delineates new legislative boundaries based on the U.S. Census. Some of Miami-Dade’s precincts were imbalanced because of significant population growth in the southwest portions of the county and along Brickell Avenue. Precincts ranged from having less than 200 voters to having more than 8,000.
Under the changes made last year and proposed for this year, most precincts will be capped at 2,500 voters, who will be no more than two miles from their polling place, Townsley told commissioners.
Elections administrators are OK with having some very large precincts, with more than 2,500 voters, because more mail-in ballots, early voting days and early voting sites have eased the Election Day crush. Miami-Dade plans to offer 30 early voting locations for the November 2016 presidential election, up from 20 in the primary. (Twenty-five opened for last November’s gubernatorial election.)
The county has also invested in more technology, including more optical ballot scanners, and changed its voter-booth allocation formula to increase their number based on the number of ballot pages in a given election.
Townsley told commissioners her department intends to review growth trends every year and explore the possibility of getting developers to accommodate polling places in large new projects.