Miami-Dade group begins examining what went wrong in elections

For an advisory group convened to find a cure for what ails Miami-Dade’s election system, Wednesday marked the first step toward a diagnosis.

The symptoms are common knowledge by now: Long lines during early voting and on Election Day. Slow counting following a surge in absentee ballots.

But what caused the illness, and how can it be prevented in the future?

To figure it all out, the group appointed by Mayor Carlos Gimenez spent its first meeting getting to know state and local elections laws and practices — a lesson that also offered a glimpse at exactly what went wrong.

The goal, Gimenez told the group, is to make sure that the next time Miami-Dade makes international Election Day headlines, they don’t become fodder for late-night comedians.

“I want our citizens to walk out of the ballot box and say, ‘Wow, that was the way to conduct a presidential election,’ ” he said.

The group heard from the assistant county attorney in charge of elections and from Elections Supervisor Penelope Townsley, whose department runs about 20 elections a year.

“We’re very proud of the policies and procedures that we have in place,” she said. “However, we do realize that there’s opportunity for improvement.”

Among the challenges on Nov. 6 that Townsley outlined:

• The lengthy ballot required the department to issue emergency bids so its vendors could retrofit machines that prepare, and later sort and open, absentee ballots to accommodate the 10-12 ballot pages. The department also had to redesign absentee-ballot envelopes.

• The department was overwhelmed with voter calls about absentee ballots, receiving an average of 2,000 calls a day and about 7,500 calls on Election Day.

• The surge in absentee ballots — about 50,000 arrived on Election Day and the day before — slowed counting because the department has at least one worker verify each signature. Signature-verification computer software exists, but the department has yet to find one it considers accurate enough.

• Though Miami-Dade had enlisted 150 temporary workers to assist with ballot counting, only 60 of them showed up. The others said the job offered was too short, or that they feared working would cost them unemployment benefits.

• Miami-Dade does not have enough electronic registries — the lists of registered voters — to employ them at all precincts on Election Day. Instead, it relies on printed registries in binders, which may slow the process. Purchasing enough machines would cost between $4 million and $5 million, Townsley said.

The county only uses electronic registries at early-voting sites — unlike Broward, the elections department said, which uses them at every precinct.

“Broward has it? I think we need to,” Gimenez said.

Advisory group members raised several questions that would require changes to state law. For example, Florida limits early-voting sites to elections offices, city halls and libraries — though the county could spend more money to open more of those sites.

State law also requires counties to identify early-voting sites 30 days prior to an election, essentially prohibiting opening last-minute polls.

Still, several members said they were skeptical that any recommendations they make will be seriously considered by state lawmakers. Last year, the Legislature shortened the number of early-voting days to eight from 14, while keeping the number of maximum hours offered the same. However, early-voting was extended by then-Gov. Charlie Crist in 2008.

The state law also eliminated early voting on the Sunday before Election Day, though the law guarantees one Sunday of early voting.

“We’re going to go back to the people who made the law more restrictive?” asked Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert, one of the group’s members.

Gimenez said he is less concerned about assigning blame and more about proposing solutions. He said the election problems were likely caused by “a perfect storm” of state and county decisions.

“We could have opened up more early voting sites,” he acknowledged. “We could have done other things.”

By the group’s next meeting, Townsley said her department will have issued its “after-action” report, a detailed post-mortem of the general election that will include her staff’s recommendations. It is set for 9 a.m. Dec. 14 at the 18th floor of the Stephen P. Clark Government Center, 111 NW 1st St.

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