Voting lines, slow counting put Miami-Dade elections supervisor in spotlight

Two days after the Nov. 6 election, a weary Penelope Townsley, the Miami-Dade elections supervisor, stood before a gaggle of reporters who peppered her with pointed questions about what had gone wrong on Election Day.

Her week had been fueled by coffee and adrenaline. She arrived at the office at around 5 a.m. Tuesday and didn’t leave until 9 p.m. Wednesday. No change of clothes, no meals, except for a cup of instant oatmeal her staff insisted she wolf down.

By Thursday’s press conference, Miami-Dade had finished counting absentee ballots. Other counties were still going. The state’s presidential results remained too close to call. Everyone wanted to know what had taken so long, and why some voters had to wait in such slow lines.

The job of answering fell to Townsley, a previously little-known figure in county government thrust into the unforgiving elections spotlight. While admitting some problems, she has staunchly defended her department’s performance in the first presidential election under her charge.

“I think it was generally a very good election,” she said in an interview last week. “We knew it was going to be a challenge going into it.”

But some outsiders have disagreed, noting that Florida — and Miami-Dade and Broward counties in particular — once again became the butt of post-election jokes, and that some voters were deterred by the lengthy waits.

Speaking on Spanish-language television two days after the election, former Miami City Manager Joe Arriola called for Townsley’s ouster.

“Just because Broward County got a double ‘F’, we still got an ‘F’, didn’t we?” Arriola later told The Miami Herald. “This is very poor preparation. I am absolutely adamant that if she’s in charge, she needs to pay the price.”

But Townsley’s boss, County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, has backed his appointee. Unlike in every other county in the state, the Miami-Dade elections supervisor is not elected.

“I’m not going to put everything on her,” Gimenez said after Election Day, when he announced plans to convene a task force to recommend elections improvements.

Townsley said she looks forward to making her case to the task force.

“There was an assumption that things were being delayed and things could have been done faster,” she said of the slow counting. “But you have to be in it to understand.”

Townsley, a 32-year county employee, has been at the helm of elections since October 2011. But this is not her first stint in the department. She worked there for four years under her three predecessors: David Leahy, Constance Kaplan and Lester Sola.

A native of the small town of Molena, Ga. — “One traffic light, one doctor,” she said — Townsley, 56, was raised in Homestead. She graduated from South Dade Senior High School and, after a brief period supervising classified ads for community newspapers, she began working in 1980 in what was then the county architects’ office, as a typist.

Townsley moved up the secretarial ranks, received a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Barry University and then jumped to an administrative role, where she eventually led the department of business and economic development.

She joined the elections department in 2003, as the department began a transformation following the disastrous 2002 primary. Inexperienced poll workers and problems with new touch-screen voting machines delayed polling places from opening, compelling officials to extend voting hours and apologize to voters. That mess came on the heels of the 2000 presidential recount and a 1997 Miami voter-fraud scandal.

Townsley, who came in as a deputy elections supervisor in charge of operations and was later promoted to chief deputy, remembers spending days drafting overseas absentee ballots using rustic Microsoft Word files. Evaluations in her personnel file praised her performance.

In 2007, former County Manager George Burgess moved Townsley from elections to head the department of small business development, where she reviewed contracts to create openings for small businesses and worked with construction, architecture and engineering firms to streamline the certification process for them to qualify for county work.

That job, she said, made her happy.

“I am a public servant at heart, and it just brings me so much joy, so much personal pleasure, in creating opportunities,” she said.

When Gimenez was elected, he promoted Sola, the elections supervisor, and offered Townsley the post.

“I was absolutely speechless,” she said. “He had to literally ask me, ‘Are you going to say anything?’ ”

Townsley, who was not raised in a political family and describes herself as apolitical, is one of four African-American women department directors in the county. Her base pay is about $147,700.

The mother of three children and one stepchild, and grandmother of nine (including a 2-month-old granddaughter she has been unable to spend much time with lately) lives in Doral — near the elections headquarters — and is married to Jeffrey Townsley, a bus operator and vice president of the county transit workers union. Her stepson, Jeffrey Townsley Jr., is also a county bus driver.

“She is a success story, as far as it relates to somebody coming into an organization and working her way up the ranks,” said Sola, who now heads the county’s internal services department.

Sola’s management team remained at elections, and Townsley’s direction was clear, she said: Don’t change a thing.

“It’s working,” she said. “It’s a well-oiled machine.”

But the job can be a pressure cooker.

“It’s a very difficult job,” Sola said. “You have an incredible amount of responsibility — not just to the electorate, to the citizens, but also statewide and nationally, to deliver fair and equitable elections.”

Under Townsley’s tenure, things went smoothly in a slew of municipal elections, the January presidential primary and the Aug. 14 statewide primary. The department came under scrutiny in the late summer after police arrested and charged two suspected absentee-ballot brokers in Hialeah.

Trouble arose last month, when early voting began for the general election.

The ballot was 10 to 12 pages long. Lines of voters extended for blocks. Early-voting sites closed hours after the last voter was allowed in line at 7 p.m. Townsley spent an entire day at a North Miami site, rejiggering the way it was set up and bringing in more equipment and poll workers.

“I think that she’s doing the best that she can under the circumstances,” Commissioner Dennis Moss said, blaming most election problems on the state. “We have a tendency in this community to beat ourselves up on issues. Some of these things are out of our control.”

Gimenez did not ask the governor for more early-voting hours. And Townsley didn’t, either.

“I left the political side to the administration,” she said. “The mayor said he had no intent to do so, so that means Penny has no intent to do so.”

Then came Election Day, and the glare of the public eye. Townsley called her initial press conferences “scary.”

“But it comes with the territory,” she said. “I was able to do it because I was confident in what I’d done.”

Townsley blamed the slow counting on a surge in absentee ballots that arrived on Election Day. Absentees take longer to tabulate because their signatures must be verified.

Her department has yet to complete its assessment of the factors that contributed to the voting lines, though Townsley said one takeaway so far is that staff needs to hone in on individual precincts and not just consider the elections on a countywide or neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.

“For the most part, we were right on,” she maintained.

Resources were not a problem, Townsley said, but the organization and physical layout at “outlier” precincts was.

And so was a state elections law approved last year that Townsley said she is eager to discuss with Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, the state’s top elections official who has said he plans to meet with elections supervisors in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach.

Among other things, the law reduced the number of early-voting days to 8 from 14, though it kept the number of hours on the books the same, and it eliminated early voting the Sunday before Election Day, though it guaranteed one Sunday of early voting.

“If you have a goal of making voting convenient ... then reducing the number of early voting days goes totally against that,” Townsley said.

County commissioners have refrained from publicly criticizing Townsley, though outgoing Chairman Joe Martinez and Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo sent the mayor memos questioning the department’s planning for early voting and Election Day. Several other commissioners have praised Townsley for taking their phone calls relaying problems at voting sites.

“I found her very, very responsive,” Commissioner Sally Heyman said. Then, she added: “But some of this should have been anticipated.”