Absentee-ballot count finished by Miami-Dade; election chief fends off criticism over delay

The absentee ballot count is mercifully over.

Miami-Dade elections workers counted a final batch of 500 absentees Thursday morning, after pulling an all-nighter.

Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Penelope Townsley fended off criticism Thursday that the county's election was less than perfect, when she announced the completion of the county's absentee ballot count about 40 hours after the polls closed on Election Day.

"Generally, I think Miami-Dade County conducted a very good election," Townsley told reporters at the elections office in Doral, as she deflected questions about long lines and voting delays at the polls. "Am I embarrassed or disappointed by some of the things that happened? Absolutely. But I have to focus on simply getting it right."

The last-minute surge of some 54,000 absentees cast up until the closing of the polls on Election Day caused an extraordinary delay in tabulating the final results for Miami-Dade's vote.

Elections workers counted about 31,750 absentee votes over the past two days.

The three other big Florida counties -- Broward, Palm Beach and Duval -- are still tabulating their absentees.

Hanging in the balance: the official outcome of the presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, along with several local elections.

Townsley said the county's total election results -- including provisional ballots that still must be counted -- will be completed by Friday.

Florida remains the only state in the union not to declare its presidential winner, and several tight local elections hang in the balance.

The fallout has left Florida the final much-mocked but blank spot on the long-decided Electoral College map.

Elections officials and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez acknowledged a range of problems at a “handful” of sites — topped by a lengthy ballot and poorly organized precincts. But they also argued that no more than a half-dozen of the county’s 541 polling places experienced severe waits, including the Brickell Avenue area of downtown Miami, West Kendall, Country Walk, Goulds and Homestead.


Still, the last vote was cast at 1:30 a.m. — after Republican challenger Mitt Romney had delivered his concession speech. Gimenez called those handful of long lines “inexcusable.’’ He said he would ask Elections Supervisor Townsley for a detailed report, convene a task force to examine problems, and press Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers to extend early voting days and sites. For future presidential elections, he also wants to double or triple the number of early voting sites.

“Obviously we didn’t do something right in those precincts,’’ he said. “It’s not the way we should treat our citizens.’’

The problems drew fire from frustrated voters, voting rights groups and political leaders from both parties. Though there were long lines elsewhere in the state, including Orlando, no reports came close to matching the grinding delays in Miami-Dade.

“There are many Third World countries that would never ask their citizens to stand in line for six to seven hours to cast their ballots,’’ said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters Florida.

Macnab, as well as Gimenez, put some of blame on the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature, which had laden the ballot with the full text of 10 complicated amendments, and on Scott, who had rejected appeals from the League and Democrats to extend early voting days from eight to 14.

But outgoing Miami-Dade Commission Chairman Joe Martinez, who lost a mayoral race to Gimenez, said elections supervisors should have planned better after complaints poured in regarding long lines during early voting.

“It’s the perfect storm. It was a combination of everything: high voter turnout, some machines not working properly, trouble finding people on the vote rolls,’’ he said. “You should have been prepared for it because we went through this already with Obama in 2008.’’

During a radio interview with WLRN, the Miami Herald’s news partner, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, summed up her views of the long lines: “This election was a disaster.’’

Miami attorney Kendall Coffey, who has worked for Democratic presidential candidates since the Bush vs. Gore recount battle in 2000, said Scott could have alleviated the lines by following former Gov. Charlie Crist’s lead and adding more early voting days.

Scott, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, said his administration, like any business, needed to review how it managed the vote while keeping an eye on the budget.

“Whenever you finish a project, in this case an election,’’ he said, “let’s go back and look. What went right? What can we improve?”

Broward may not have been as bad as Miami-Dade on Election Day, but it had its share of problems, from long waits at major polling stations to running out of ballots at certain precincts.

“The big picture is that we have done this to ourselves,” Broward County Mayor John Rodstrom, a Democrat, said. “It’s symptomatic of the fact that we are now moving city elections and city items to a regular [November] election. We have these tremendously long ballots now.”

Broward GOP chairman Richard DeNapoli said “it was unconscionable that the supervisor of elections didn’t see this coming.” He said that some precincts were much larger than others and that meant some of the larger ones didn’t have enough scanners to process the ballots.

But Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes defended the work of her office as employees continued to process absentee ballots Wednesday.

“All of us who watch elections know when voters are interested in candidates and issues, we are going to have long lines,” Snipes said.

A range of problems contributed to the long lines in Miami-Dade, and the delay in tallying absentee ballots that flooded in on Monday and Tuesday. Turnout was only a minor factor, with just an 8 percent increase in Election Day voters over the number from 2008, a presidential race with few problems. Slightly more than 400,000 people voted in their precincts on Tuesday.

A bottleneck

But Gimenez said the county should have accounted for the lengthy ballot by providing more voting booths, ballot scanners and workers at large precincts, and by organizing the process to avoid a bottleneck of voters being checked in.

Christina White, the deputy elections supervisor, said she couldn’t explain specific problems at each poorly performing precinct, except at UTD Towers on Brickell, where the mayor apologized to hundreds of voters still in line when polls closed.

The building, once home to just two precincts, grew by four more under redistricting in 2010. The expanded polling station in the booming Brickell area catered to voters from six precincts, each with different ballots. Each of the scanning machines on hand was coded to read just one precinct, not all six. Voters also jammed the scanning machines in some instances by stuffing all of the ballot pages in at once, she said.

‘a bad decision’

The idea was to keep as many voters as possible in their familiar polling station, but Gimenez acknowledged it backfired. “It looks like that was a bad decision, at least in those precincts,’’ he said.

The county, as in years past, had a troubleshooting team ready to dispatch to polling places with both technical and administrative glitches, said Deputy Mayor Alina Hudak, who oversees the elections department. Trucks with backup equipment — from machines to pens — are deployed regionally.

In 2008, the county had 1,538 ballot scanners. This year it had 1,788.

Though it was late, Gimenez ordered 13 additional poll workers, along with more privacy booths, for the Brickell site to help ease the line.

White acknowledged that elections officials were acutely aware of the interminable waits during early voting over the course of eight days, Oct. 27-Nov. 3. She said Townsley, the elections supervisor, ordered more poll workers, privacy booths and scanning machines for this election compared with 2008.

White said Townsley also shifted resources during Election Day. “We were trouble-shooting throughout the day,’’ she said.

Gimenez also fought back against much of the criticism, noting that several other counties had significant lines, too.

“This is not a Third World country,’’ he said, firing back at that characterization. “Your vote counts.’’

Phillis Oeters, chairwoman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, said the business group also plans to launch a task force to improve the voting process, widely viewed as an embarrassment for a county that sometimes struggles to be seen as a top-tier corporate location.

“I think it’s time for the business community to say, ‘This is no longer acceptable,’ ” said Oeters, vice president of government relations for the Baptist Hospital system.

There were lines, tardy results, machine malfunctions, power outages and apologetic elections supervisors in other counties as well. In Fort Myers, for instance, Lee County Supervisor of Elections Sharon Harrington broke into tears as she apologized for the delays, which she blamed on an exceptionally long ballot. Orange County also experienced long delays.

Though the state’s voting problems didn’t wind up affecting the presidential race, as they did in 2000, the long lines still drew national attention because of Florida’s influential status with 29 electoral votes. During his victory speech in Chicago, President Barack Obama thanked voters who waited in line “for a very long time,’’

“By the way,’’ he added, “we have to fix that.’’

Miami Herald staff writers Charles Rabin, Scott Hiaasen, Amy Sherman, Alexandra Leon, Douglas Hanks and Herald/Times reporter Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.

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