Voters wait hours in North Miami, and there weren’t enough ballots for everyone

Miami-Dade briefly ran out of ballots Sunday for some voters at its North Miami location, as malfunctioning printers upended logistics there during the final day of early voting and had people reporting wait times topping three hours.

As the sun set on the 14th day of early voting in the largely black neighborhood, more than 200 voters were in a line that snaked around half a block outside the North Miami library. “I would have stayed in line eight hours if I had to,” Joas Laurent, 37, said as he walked out of the library at 7:20 p.m., about three hours after he said he arrived.

The printers used to generate customized ballots for a voter’s precinct failed early in the afternoon, and poll workers eventually had to turn to pre-printed ballots to let people vote, said Christina White, the county’s elections supervisor. When those ran out for two of the surrounding precincts, the county had to rush in replacements from nearby polling places. She said it’s the only time she can recall Miami-Dade running out of ballots at a voting site.

“Nobody waited more than 45 minutes” for their replacement ballot to arrive, she said. “Which I know is a long time.”

As the 7 p.m. close of voting approached, campaign workers in Andrew Gillum T-shirts handed out water and pizza as voters waited their turn to enter the “Desiline Victor Voting Wing.”

It’s named after the 102-year-old woman who waited hours in 2012 to cast her vote for Barack Obama at the North Miami library amid epic delays that drew national attention. Miami-Dade poured more money and resources into its voting operation for 2016 and earned praise for largely avoiding the delays that marred the prior presidential election.

North Miami looks to be the biggest stumble in an early-voting cycle that has seen records broken for a gubernatorial election, and a pace that’s approaching what Miami-Dade sees during presidential years. Early voting is up more than 150 percent from 2014 levels. Through Saturday, Miami-Dade voters cast about 504,000 ballots in person and through the mail. That puts turnout at just under 36 percent as Sunday voting began, compared to 21 percent at the same time in 2014.

In 2016, turnout had already topped 50 percent when the final day of early voting arrived. And while the 2018 midterm election isn’t matching the 2016 pace, some early-voting sites in Miami-Dade actually surpassed presidential turnout in recent days.

The Coral Gables library, the busiest of Miami-Dade’s 28 early-voting sites, saw 80 more voters than it did on the last Saturday of early voting in 2016. The Coral Reef and Lemon City libraries both saw roughly 300 more early voters on Saturday than they did two years ago. The North Dade Library in Miami Gardens has the smallest drop-off from its 2016 levels, down just 13 percent from the presidential pace of 2016.

North Miami recently climbed to the Top Five list of Miami-Dade’s busiest early-voting sites, but hasn’t passed its 2016 totals on any day, according to county statistics. Even so, the Elections Department expected a surge of voters Sunday in the Democratic stronghold during the Democratic Party’s traditional “Souls to the Polls” get-out-the-vote effort with churchgoers on the final Sunday of early voting. Numbers released Monday morning showed 1,939 people voted Sunday at North Miami, the busiest day for the site this year and a pace of about 160 voters an hour.

Francesca Petite, 19, arrived at the North Miami site around 4 p.m. to vote in her first election. She didn’t leave the voting site until 7:45 p.m. “The lines could have been quicker,” she said. But joined by her older sister, Evelyn, Petite said the crowds kept them entertained in line and that volunteers handed out water bottles. “Overall,” she said, “It was a positive experience.”

There is no voting Monday, so Sunday was the final day to cast a ballot early in person. On Election Day on Tuesday, voters must go to their assigned neighborhood precinct to cast a ballot. Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.

Poll watchers, voters, campaign workers, and election officials described a trying afternoon when the North Miami site began having problems with its ballot printers.

Because any voter in Miami-Dade can vote early in any of the county’s 28 early-voting sites, poll workers print out a customized ballot with the state and municipal questions that apply to a voter’s precinct. For some reason, all of the North Miami printers went down at once, White said. Unable to print customized ballots, poll workers had to revert to the contingency plan: unlocking a cabinet with pre-printed ballots for each of the hundreds of precincts within Miami-Dade.

Finding the right ballot takes longer than printing one, so lines on an already busy day began getting longer. Miami-Dade does not stock each early-voting site with extra ballots from nearby precincts, and North Miami eventually ran out of ballots for voters coming from surrounding neighborhoods before replacements could be driven over from other sites.

White said the printers were down for about two hours out of a 12-hour day of early voting. Forty-five minutes after polls closed at 7 p.m., a line topping 100 people had been whittled down to zero. Voting continued inside well past 8 p.m.

With lines backing up, some voters left in frustration. Word of the problems kept others from showing up, said Lynn Vil, who said she spent more than three hours in line before casting her ballot. “I didn’t care about food,” she said. “I didn’t care about water.”

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