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2 posts from November 18, 2012

November 18, 2012

Miami-Dade put off drawing new precincts, which contributed to long Election Day waits

The Miami-Dade Elections Department had a plan earlier this year to evenly distribute voters across polling places on Election Day, to avoid packing thousands of people into precincts where the population had boomed.

But the plan was put on hold because county leaders didn’t want to confuse voters by changing their polling places before a presidential election.

So on Nov. 6, voters went to their familiar precincts — only to find, in some cases, lines that dragged on for hours.

Several factors contributed to the waits, including a 10-page ballot. But holding off on “reprecincting” was probably not the best idea in areas that saw throngs of voters, Mayor Carlos Gimenez conceded after Election Day.

The flip side, he noted, could have also caused problems: Voters could have showed up at their usual precincts only to be sent to new ones elsewhere.

“You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Gimenez said. “That wasn’t done, because certain commissioners thought that that could be a way of suppressing the vote.”

The decision, however well-intentioned, resulted in precincts with wildly different numbers of registered voters. The one with the most — South Kendall Community Church in Country Walk — has 8,303. Of that number, 2,053 — about 38 percent of all votes cast in that precinct — showed up on Election Day, when waits were more than five hours.

Why were Miami-Dade voting lines so long?

Alarmed by the long lines for early voting, Norma Bonilla decided to cast her ballot instead on Election Day, arriving just before closing time at the South Kendall Community Church in the Country Walk neighborhood.

“I said, ‘Forget it, I’m not going to waste my Saturday,’ ” Bonilla, a 44-year-old nurse, said as she stood in line to vote on the evening of Nov. 6. “Now I just hope I’m not here longer than an hour and a half.”

But Bonilla, like thousands of others, waited much longer than that. Her precinct was one of the largest voting stations in Miami-Dade, and one of the most log-jammed. Voters there waited five hours or more to cast their ballots.

Voters faced similarly slow lines in at least 50 polling stations around Miami-Dade — far more than publicly acknowledged by county officials in the wake of the election, a Miami Herald analysis of Election Day voting has found. These delays contributed to Florida’s renewed reputation as the state that couldn’t count straight, with the final results in the presidential race tabulated four days after every other state in the union.

This time, the problems weren’t with hanging chads — the culprits in the notorious 2000 presidential election — unreliable counts, or fears about paperless electronic voting. Instead, the hang-up was primarily herding throngs of voters through their precincts as they faced an extraordinarily time-consuming ballot.

Why so many delays in Miami-Dade? The reasons were numerous, but the longest waits came in large precincts with more than 1,000 voters, many of whom arrived after work. Put simply, the voter bottlenecks overwhelmed even the most well-equipped precincts. Most of the problems were in polling sites in Kendall, other southwestern suburbs and West Miami-Dade — areas with a spike in both residents and voters in recent years.

Other wild cards in the equation: the deployment and competence of poll workers hired for Election Day.

Elections officials acknowledged there were voting delays, but maintained that they were limited to a few areas. In the days after the election, county officials said as few as a half-dozen of the county’s 541 polling locations suffered unreasonable delays.

But records show that 51 voting sites stayed open at least four hours after the 7 p.m. voting deadline.

More from Douglas Hanks, Jay Weaver and Scott Hiaasen here.

View an interactive map of the longest and shortest lines here.