Miami-Dade put off plan to draw new precincts before Election Day

The Miami-Dade Elections Department had a plan earlier this year to evenly distribute voters across polling places on Election Day, to avoid packing thousands of people into precincts where the population had boomed.

But the plan was put on hold because county leaders didn’t want to confuse voters by changing their polling places before a presidential election.

So on Nov. 6, voters went to their familiar precincts — only to find, in some cases, lines that dragged on for hours.

Several factors contributed to the waits, including a 10-page ballot. But holding off on “reprecincting” was probably not the best idea in areas that saw throngs of voters, Mayor Carlos Gimenez conceded after Election Day.

The flip side, he noted, could have also caused problems: Voters could have showed up at their usual precincts only to be sent to new ones elsewhere.

“You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Gimenez said. “That wasn’t done, because certain commissioners thought that that could be a way of suppressing the vote.”

The decision, however well-intentioned, resulted in precincts with wildly different numbers of registered voters. The one with the most — South Kendall Community Church in Country Walk — has 8,303. Of that number, 2,053 — about 38 percent of all votes cast in that precinct — showed up on Election Day, when waits were more than five hours.

Some small precincts have as few as a couple of hundred registered voters. Only 193 are registered at a precinct at Jefferson Reaves Sr. Park in Brownsville, for example; 78 of them voted on Election Day.

A total of 159 precincts — about 19 percent — have more than 2,500 registered voters, the maximum the elections department had set in its stalled reprecincting plan.

The plan proposed shrinking the total number of precincts to 640 from 829 and the number of physical polling places to 474 from 541. Those reductions would have saved the county $40,000 in rental fees and staffing, though there would have been additional costs to notify voters of the changes.

Driving the plan was the once-a-decade process of redrawing legislative and congressional districts.

After redistricting, “it became evident that some districts contained more precincts than necessary and others not enough,” Elections Supervisor Penelope Townsley wrote in a draft memo outlining the plan for new precincts.

The county’s reprecincting plan would have made sure all voters in a given precinct fell under the same districts — and thus voted using the same ballot.

When the plan was put off, the result was that voters at the same polling place required different ballots, depending on their new districts. And different ballots required different optical scanners, programmed for each ballot configuration.

The elections department divided large precincts into “subprecincts” to check in voters and provide ballots to them based on their new districts. The South Kendall Community Church polling place, for example, had two subprecincts and more voting booths than any other site in the county, though voters there still saw some of the longest lines.

New precincts might have eased some of the bottlenecks, Townsley said. But redistricting was delayed by state and federal lawsuits, and she feared voters would learn about their new precincts too close to the Aug. 14 primary election.

“I am very glad we didn’t do it,” Commissioner Rebeca Sosa said last week. “Can you imagine, on top of everything that happened? The confusion would have been another big, black eye.”

The county has not redrawn all of its precincts since 2002, though it has divided some large precincts into smaller ones.

County records show the elections department prepared a detailed PowerPoint presentation and an advertising proposal to deliver to commissioners at a committee meeting on April 11.

But two days before the meeting, the administration requested withdrawing the item. On April 12, Townsley recommended delaying reprecincting until 2013 "in an over abundance of caution." The mayor agreed.

"While there are some operational challenges that the Department is faced with," Townsley wrote, "I assure you sound policies and procedures will be in place to address them, providing Election Day voters the same convenience and ease of voting they are used to and another successful election we can be proud of."

Miami Herald staff writers Douglas Hanks, Scott Hiaasen and Jay Weaver contributed to this report.

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