Why you spent hours in line at the polls

Alarmed by the long lines for early voting, Norma Bonilla decided to cast her ballot instead on Election Day, arriving just before closing time at the South Kendall Community Church in the Country Walk neighborhood.

“I said, ‘Forget it, I’m not going to waste my Saturday,’ ” Bonilla, a 44-year-old nurse, said as she stood in line to vote on the evening of Nov. 6. “Now I just hope I’m not here longer than an hour and a half.”

But Bonilla, like thousands of others, waited much longer than that. Her precinct was one of the largest voting stations in Miami-Dade, and one of the most log-jammed. Voters there waited five hours or more to cast their ballots.

Voters faced similarly slow lines in at least 50 polling stations around Miami-Dade — far more than publicly acknowledged by county officials in the wake of the election, a Miami Herald analysis of Election Day voting has found. These delays contributed to Florida’s renewed reputation as the state that couldn’t count straight, with the final results in the presidential race tabulated four days after every other state in the union.

This time, the problems weren’t with hanging chads — the culprits in the notorious 2000 presidential election — unreliable counts, or fears about paperless electronic voting. Instead, the hang-up was primarily herding throngs of voters through their precincts as they faced an extraordinarily time-consuming ballot.

Why so many delays in Miami-Dade? The reasons were numerous, but the longest waits came in large precincts with more than 1,000 voters, many of whom arrived after work. Put simply, the voter bottlenecks overwhelmed even the most well-equipped precincts. Most of the problems were in polling sites in Kendall, other southwestern suburbs and West Miami-Dade — areas with a spike in both residents and voters in recent years.

Other wild cards in the equation: the deployment and competence of poll workers hired for Election Day.

Elections officials acknowledged there were voting delays, but maintained that they were limited to a few areas. In the days after the election, county officials said as few as a half-dozen of the county’s 541 polling locations suffered unreasonable delays.

But records show that 51 voting sites stayed open at least four hours after the 7 p.m. voting deadline.

Christina White, the deputy supervisor of elections, cautioned that the time a precinct closed did not indicate how long voters had to wait past the 7 p.m. deadline; poll workers took 45 minutes to two hours to break down a precinct and double-check machine tallies. However, many of the stations that closed after 11 p.m. were the same locations where voters waited for several hours to cast their ballots.

Election officials said they expected a large turnout on Election Day, and they thought they had enough ballot scanners, voting booths and poll workers to deal with the crowds, which they planned for based on turnout in 2008.

But The Miami Herald’s analysis found that many of the polling places with the most machines and voting booths also had the longest delays.

The biggest problem, local election officials said, was the lengthy ballot, which included several laborious constitutional amendments offered by the Florida Legislature. In Miami-Dade, the ballot ran 10 to 12 pages long.

Penelope Townsley, Miami-Dade’s supervisor of elections, said she was “satisfied” with how she deployed her staff, poll workers and equipment, which exceeded 2008 levels, but she would not elaborate. She added that improvements will be made for future elections.

“This election really establishes the consequences and the impact of paper [ballots] in Miami-Dade County,” Townsley said. “So we had the volume to deal with, we had the long ballot to deal with.”

More than 414,000 voters cast ballots on Election Day — an increase of 11 percent over Election Day 2008.

But some areas had it worse than others, a Herald review of precinct-by-precinct voting results shows. For example:

•  The polling places serving the largest number of voters had some of the longest waits. Of the 51 voting locations that stayed open the longest, 36 had more than 1,000 voters on Election Day, The Herald found.

At the South Kendall Community Church, for example, 2,053 people voted on Election Day at a site with 11 scanning machines and 42 voting booths — more booths than any other site in Miami-Dade. Still, the church saw some of the longest voting lines in the county, and poll workers didn’t close up until 1:19 a.m. Wednesday.

Two miles away, at the Country Walk Park Recreation Center, 1,892 voters flooded a site with 32 booths and seven ballot scanners, causing waits as long as seven hours.

“I think we need twice as many people to handle this,” said Paul McLeod, who stood in line all afternoon with his college-age son, Stephen, a first-time voter. He said he worried his son would get discouraged from voting — a concern raised by voting-rights advocates who say long lines can scare off voters.

“I was determined not to discourage him because it was very important,” McLeod said.

•  Even in some areas with low voter turnout and plenty of machines and booths, voters still ended up in clogged lines. Only 713 people voted on Election Day at West End Park near West Miami — fewer voters than in 2008 — yet the polling station still didn’t close until four hours after the 7 p.m. voting deadline, records show.

•  In some instances, a shortage of scanner machines may have made things worse. At Centennial Middle School in Cutler Bay, 1,786 voters cast ballots at a site with just five scanner machines — one of the highest voter-to-machine ratios in the county, records show. There were 31 voting booths at the school.

Compounding the problem at Centennial Middle and other sites was a population boom: Most Miami-Dade voting precincts have not been changed in several years despite expanding voter rolls. The number of registered voters assigned to Centennial Middle has grown from 2,355 in 2004 to 6,480 today.

“We’ve busted out of our old voter precinct, and it simply won’t fit anymore. And it’s only going to get worse if we don’t do something about it,” said Scott Sutherland of Cutler Bay, who complained of three- to five-hour lines.

Similarly, the number of voters at Stanley Axlrod UTD Towers on Brickell Avenue swelled to 1,770 — up from 1,331 who voted at its precincts four years ago.

The UTD building was home to six different precincts, with slightly different ballots for voters in each precinct. Though the site had eight scanning machines, not every machine could read every different ballot — further stalling the voting lines.

“This is the worst excuse for a precinct I’ve ever seen,” said Manuel E. Iglesias, a volunteer attorney for the Mitt Romney campaign who spent all day at the site.

The gridlock at UTD Towers forced Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez to come to the site and apologize to long-suffering voters for the delays, some of whom waited for more than six hours.

Gimenez also ordered more poll workers and voting booths, though there were already 34 booths at the site.

But for every problem voting site, there were others that managed to run smoothly — including many with high voter turnout and a low number of machines, the Herald review found.

At the Key Biscayne Community Center, more than 2,700 voters arrived on Election Day — more than any other location in Miami-Dade. The site had only 29 voting booths, fewer than a dozen other polling sites, yet there were no reported problems and it was shuttered less than 90 minutes after the 7 p.m. deadline.

Election Day produced its share of puzzling disparities, with fast-moving precincts only blocks away from voting sites crippled by crowds.

The West Hialeah Gardens Elementary School, where 955 people voted using 13 voting booths and four scanners, didn’t close until after midnight. About two miles away, the Palm Springs North Elementary School served 900 voters with the same equipment, but it closed before 9 p.m., records show.

White said the long ballot was probably the largest factor in the voting delays, and said poll workers were trained to pass out sample ballots to voters in line, hoping they would be better prepared when they got to the voting booths.

The ballots had 11 state constitutional questions — printed in full without any summaries — and 10 amendments to Miami-Dade’s charter, along with congressional, judicial and local races.

“That’s what we feel is the largest contributing factor,” White said.

In some cases, exasperated voters took the ballots and filled them out before getting to the booths — voting at tables or on their laps. Poll worker Dave Patlak, 57, a retired Coast Guard officer, said a “booth bottleneck” stalled voting at the Normandy Shores Golf Club, so voters started reading and completing their ballots while standing in line.

Patlak called this a “voter-inspired improvement” that “moved the long booth line and eliminated most of the booth bottleneck.” Poll workers locked up the precinct right on time, only 40 minutes after 7 p.m., when voting was scheduled to end.

White said she was unaware that some voters had cast their ballots outside the privacy booths, which is not allowed.

“No permission was given to vote outside the privacy booths,” she said. “We don’t condone this activity.”

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