Counties reorganize precincts to help reduce voting lines

Broward and Miami-Dade elections officials are reorganizing hundreds of voting precincts with the goal of reducing the long lines of voters that plagued last November’s presidential elections and embarrassed the state.

In Broward, Brenda Snipes, the county supervisor of elections, started the process in June, aiming to complete the work by September — more than a year in advance of the 2014 gubernatorial election.

In Miami-Dade, the county’s elections office expects to present a new precinct plan to county commissioners in early 2014, spokeswoman Christina White said. In Broward, Snipes is an elected officer, so county commissioners don’t have to approve her plan and she has no immediate plans for public input.

Miami-Dade had planned on reorganizing its precincts before the 2012 election, but delayed it out of a concern that voters assigned to new precincts would be confused on a presidential election day. Instead, voters at many precincts stood in line for several hours to wait to vote.

Both counties, which have more than 1 million voters each, have about 800 precincts. Some are combined in the same location.

The Miami Herald asked to interview Snipes but was told she was out of the office this week. Her spokeswoman, Mary Cooney, said the office’s main goal is to find a solution for the large precincts and possibly combine small ones, “but no ranges have been targeted yet.”

Miami-Dade aims to have a 2,500-voter per precinct limit. In 2012, about 19 percent of Miami-Dade county’s precincts exceeded that number with the largest — South Kendall Community Church in Country Walk — at 8,303.

Broward has about two dozen precincts with more than 3,000 voters. Its most crowded precincts are located in the western part of the county. Coupled with the lengthy ballot and other factors, the overflowing precincts created some long lines in November even though a large portion of voters now vote by absentee or early voting rather than on election day.

The process of re-drawing precincts and redistributing voters isn’t easy: It involves scrutinizing voter registration and turnout statistics in hundreds of precincts with the goal of reducing voter lines.

Tens of thousands of voters in Broward and Miami-Dade could be assigned to vote at a different precinct location than in the past. However, voters remain in their same districts and the review process won’t change who represents voters in Congress, the Legislature or local offices.

Broward entered a $36,000 contract with International Computer Works to help with the process. Miami-Dade doesn’t plan on using an outside vendor.

After the 2012 election, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner called Miami-Dade and Broward among a handful of counties that “underperformed” in the election.

On average in Miami-Dade, the wait time was 73 minutes after the 7 p.m. close of polls. It was 25 minutes in Broward, according to a recent study of statewide precincts co-authored by University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith.

It’s a common practice for elections offices to redraw precincts after redistricting. A thorough effort to redraw precincts in both counties was done in 2002. Since then, the number of registered voters has grown by more than 200,000 in Broward.

Snipes’ office has no plans to collect new public input for the precincting process although it can draw on feedback it heard from voters and various groups and committees in the aftermath of the election. Miami-Dade plans multiple public hearings, though none have been scheduled.

Although Snipes doesn’t need county commission approval on her precincting plan, it could come up during budget negotiations.

In Snipes’ budget request to the county commission in May, she asked for money to hire a new GIS mapping specialist and $16 million for equipment to purchase new ballot scanners, precinct modems, voting booths and other equipment for election day or early voting sites. It’s unclear if commissioners will grant her full request when they vote on the budget in September but some have questioned it.

“Everyone wants more $$,” tweeted Broward County Commissioner Stacy Ritter during a May budget workshop. “Yes things are getting better, but not that better and not that fast.”

In an interview, Commissioner Marty Kiar questioned whether Snipes will be able to add more precincts if the county doesn’t grant her budget request for more equipment.

Broward County Commissioner Barbara Sharief of Miramar represents part of the county that had some of the largest voting precincts. On election day, one precinct drew so many voters that it ran out of ballots, she said. At the Miramar library on election day, “you could go there at any moment in time and find 500-700 people,” she said.

Voters at crowded precincts grew frustrated, Sharief said.

“I had people get out of line who said they had been here three hours and were not standing in this line,” she said.

Coral Springs voter Andrew Ladanowski, who ran unsuccessfully for school board in 2012, has sent emails to Snipes’ office with questions about the number of voters in precincts.

“I need some help understanding why some precincts have two voters and some have 4,400, this makes elections run very inefficiently and costly,” he wrote to Snipes’ office in an email he forwarded to the Miami Herald. “This also breaks trust with the voters. Voters are expecting that their vote will count and the people can’t determine how they voted. I found some instances where I could determine how voters voted.”

Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections President Lori Edwards, a supervisor in Polk County, called reorganizing voters in precincts, or reprecincting, a “necessary evil.”

“Voters don’t like change,” she said. “Every time you move a precinct line things become more convenient for some people and less convenient for others.”

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this article.