Miami-Dade elections report: County to blame for some problems

The waits of up to seven hours at some Miami-Dade polls during last month’s presidential election occurred in part because the county failed to estimate how much time it would take to fill out 10- to 12-page ballots, did not open more early-voting sites and decided not to draw new precincts this year as planned, a report issued Wednesday concluded.

A last-minute surge in absentee ballots that overwhelmed the elections department staff, and a 12-hour Election Day breakdown of a machine that sorts the ballots also delayed the final results tally by two days, according to the department’s after-action report.

Wednesday’s report was the first comprehensive document outlining all of the factors that contributed to troubles in Miami-Dade. State officials, local elected leaders and county administrators have been piecing it together since the Nov. 6 election.

Some of the blame lies with Florida lawmakers, who placed 11 lengthy constitutional amendments on the ballot and cut the number of early-voting days to eight from 14.

But the 53-page report, while not providing any explicit mea culpas, also places responsibility on the county’s election department, run by Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s appointed elections supervisor, Penelope Townsley.

“It was a combination of factors,” Gimenez told The Miami Herald Wednesday evening. “But I can’t put the blame on any one person or one entity. The blame can go all the way around.”

The report points to seven key factors that affected the election, which was budgeted to cost $11.3 million:

• The length of the ballot: The ballot ran 10 to 12 pages, largely thanks to 11 state constitutional amendments and, though the report doesn’t mention them, 10

county charter questions.

• How long it took voters to fill out their ballots: While the department focused on educating voters, an estimate of the average voting time “may have yielded a better gauge for managing the wait times.”

• The number of early-voting sites: The state limits the sites to elections offices, city halls and public libraries. Miami-Dade could have opened more sites, but it budgeted for and stuck with its traditional 20 sites.

• Processing absentee ballots: Miami-Dade received a record number of absentee ballots — including more than 55,000 on Election Day and the day before — which take longer to tabulate because they require workers to verify individual signatures. There were glitches with the post office, only 60 of 150 hired seasonal workers assigned to open ballots showed up to work, and the machine that sorts ballots broke down for 12 hours beginning at 2:30 a.m. Election Day, further delaying the vote count.

• Delays at polling places: Miami-Dade checks in voters manually, using paper voter registries, on Election Day, instead of using quicker and more accurate (and more expensive) electronic registries available at early-voting sites.• Not reprecincting: Though the department had planned to draw new precincts, following once-a-decade legislative redistricting, it ultimately decided not to because the mayor and several commissioners feared new polling places would confuse voters. More than a quarter of the county’s voters would have been relocated, according to the report.

An advisory group Gimenez convened proposed possible tweaks to state election laws last week, including allowing counties to open early-voting sites in more locations, extending early voting to include the Sunday before Election Day, limiting the length of constitutional amendments and allowing counties to begin tallying absentee ballots 20 days — instead of 15 days — before Election Day. County commissioners adopted those recommendations on Tuesday.

The advisory group, which plans to meet again on Jan. 7, will now turn its attention to potential changes at the county level.

The elections report makes a slew of departmental recommendations, including several big-ticket items:

• Open more than 20 early-voting sites for larger, presidential elections. This year, sites cost $20,000 per day to operate.

• Replace the single absentee ballot-sorting machine with two machines, allowing the department to have a backup. Estimated cost: $1.2 million.

• Purchase electronic voter registries to use at all precincts on Election Day. The cost for 1,040 registries to use at 520 sites: $1.6 million.

The report doesn’t provide cost estimates for other recommendations, including considering purchasing signature-verification computer software. Gimenez said he wants his administration to spend some time considering technology upgrades, to ensure the new equipment will work before making purchases that may be old in two or four years.

“We don’t want to continue to change our processes after every presidential election,” he said. “It’s very expensive, and you’re just basically crawling until the next solution.”

The report provides a precinct-by-precinct breakdown of voting equipment, noting that the department added ballot scanners to 41 precincts expected to have high turnout, based on numbers from the last day of early voting. On Election Day, 167 more scanners were prepared to deploy to the polls.

But, illustrating some of the department’s challenges, Miami-Dade was only able to verify that 66 of those scanners were delivered and put to work. “While we believe the additional 101 scanners were delivered, the transfer of custody forms normally used to validate delivery were not available,” the report says.

Elsewhere in the report, the department concluded that only six polling locations, out of 541, had voters casting ballots after midnight on Election Day. One location was in the city of Miami, the other five were in West Kendall and Southwest Miami-Dade, which saw a population boom in the decade since the county last redrew its precincts.

County records showed that 24 polls closed after midnight. But in 18 of those sites, voters weren’t still voting, the report says; poll workers just took longer to notify the elections department that they were closed.

The last voter, according to the report, voted at Eureka Villas Park in Southwest Miami-Dade at 1:18 a.m. — more than an hour after Republican Mitt Romney had conceded to Democratic President Barack Obama.