Feds to monitor early voting in Miami-Dade

Democratic U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson said Friday she alerted federal authorities to political operatives who are preying on older immigrants in an attempt to manipulate their votes at the North Miami Public Library.

That’s why, she said, the U.S. Justice Department announced Friday that it will monitor early voting in Miami-Dade. Federal investigators are monitoring just two other U.S. counties — Dallas and Harris in Texas.

Wilson, a Miami Gardens Democrat, said her office has received several complaints of people assisting older immigrants into the library, and manipulating them into voting for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Wilson said she also complained that Gov. Rick Scott declined to extend early voting hours in Miami-Dade, despite long lines.

Assisting people in voting booths is allowed, so long as the voter and the assistant fill out affidavits available at the sites. Miami-Dade elections officials did not know how many such affidavits had been completed at the North Miami Public Library.

Justice Department officials did not explain their decision, but said “personnel will monitor polling place activities during early voting in this county. Civil Rights Division attorneys will coordinate federal activities and maintain contact with local election officials.”

Christina White, Miami-Dade’s deputy supervisor of elections, said the county had not been contacted by federal authorities.

“They’re welcome to come observe,” she said.

Some Republicans scoffed at Wilson’s statements.

Former North Miami Mayor Joe Celestin, a Republican, said voting is running smoothly in North Miami, and that Wilson may have been given the wrong information.

“The Haitian community does not have the type of voters that are that disconnected to the system. They are experienced voters. No one is going to guide them at the polls for someone they don’t want to vote for.”

North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre, a Democrat who supports President Barack Obama, also criticized Wilson’s allegations.

“I can’t believe this garbage,” Pierre said. “North Miami is doing everything to make sure that people are not being harassed by the Romney or Obama campaigns.”

Monitoring elections on Election Day isn’t out of the ordinary. The Justice Department said it will deploy 780 observers to 51 different jurisdictions around the country to oversee Tuesday’s presidential election.

Among the counties under the federal microscope are Cuyahoga and Lorain counties in hotly-contested Ohio, four counties in Pennsylvania, and seven counties in Florida, including Miami-Dade.

Wilson’s other demand to extend early-voting hours won’t happen because the governor has refused the same request from others.

In Florida, Democrats have tended to favor early voting, while more Republicans vote by mail using absentee ballots.

The GOP-controlled state Legislature decided last year to cut back on the number of early-voting days to eight from 14, keeping the maximum number of hours offered at 96. The governor signed the bill, which guarantees one Sunday of early voting but eliminates it the Sunday before Election Day, which black churches had traditionally used to rally voters to the polls. Early voting ends at 7 p.m. Saturday.

The early-voting lines throughout Miami-Dade have been lengthy. It’s been especially packed at the north and southwest ends of the county. Broward has seen long waits in some sites, too.

Though Miami-Dade leaders have had internal discussions about pushing for more voting hours, the office of Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Republican, has said he has no intention of asking the governor to add hours. Miami-Dade Election Supervisor Penelope Townsley’s office has added dozens of voting machines and workers at several crowded polling stations, which remained packed Friday.

Miami Herald staff writers Patricia Mazzei and Nadege Green contributed to this report.