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Voting debacle in Florida causes chaos, confusion

By Patricia Mazzei, Amy Sherman and Kathleen Mcgrory, The Miami Herald –

MIAMI — What began Sunday morning as an attempt by the Miami-Dade County elections department to let more people early vote devolved into chaos and confusion only days before the nation decides its next president.

Call it the debacle in Doral.

Elections officials, overwhelmed with voters, locked the doors to their Doral headquarters and temporarily shut down the operation, angering nearly 200 voters standing in line outside — only to resume the proceedings an hour later.

On the surface, officials blamed technical equipment and a lack of staff for the shutdown. But behind the scenes, there was another issue: Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

The Republican had never signed off on the additional in-person absentee voting hours in the first place.

“That was counter to what I said on Friday, which was we were not going to change the game mid-stream,” he said. “I said, ‘No, there’s no way we did this.’ ”

But Gimenez, who is in a nonpartisan post, quickly realized it was better to let the voting go on, and the voting resumed.

The mayor said he found out early Sunday afternoon — from his daughter-in-law — about the extra voting hours.

The move had been approved by Deputy Mayor Alina Hudak at the request of Elections Supervisor Penelope Townsley. The plan was simple: Allow voters to request, fill out and return absentee ballots in person for four hours Sunday afternoon.

Early voting the Sunday before Election Day used to be allowed. But it was eliminated by the GOP-controlled state Legislature and Republican Gov. Rick Scott last year after Barack Obama used early voting to help him win Florida in 2008 — and therefore the presidency.

Gimenez said his initial reaction was to stop the last-minute Sunday voting.

But by then, around 180 people stood in line outside the elections office at 2700 NW 87th Ave. They shouted “Let us vote!” and banged on the locked glass doors.

“This is America, not a third-world country,” said Myrna Peralta, who waited in line with her 4-year-old grandson for nearly two hours before the doors closed. “They should have been prepared.”

“My beautiful Sunshine State,” she lamented. “They’re not letting people vote.”

Minutes earlier, a department spokeswoman had said the office did not have enough resources — only one ballot printer, five voting booths and two staffers — to handle the throng of voters and would begin turning new voters away.

“We had the best of intentions to provide this service today,” spokeswoman Christina White had said. “We just can’t accommodate it to the degree that we would like to.”

Calvin Sweeting, a 59-year-old from Opa-locka, was told he would be the last person to vote.

“They said I was the lucky one,” he said, shrugging. “It didn’t seem fair to me.”

Or to Jean Marcellus, 52, who stood behind him.

“This is ridiculous,” Marcellus shouted, holding up the ticket he was given to secure his place in the queue. “I’m the next one!”

Nearly all the voters stayed in line until a campaign worker reported her car had been towed from a private parking lot across the street. Scores of people ducked out of the line to check on their own cars. A second car had been towed.

Behind closed doors were back-and-forth phone calls among the department, the county attorney’s office and the mayor, who eventually decided to let the people outside the elections department vote. Democrats also unleashed a torrent of phone calls to reporters and the county.

“I’m upset at this change, but at the end, when you have 200, 300 voters out there ready to go, you really can’t disenfranchise them,” Gimenez said. Of the whole situation, he added: “I’m certainly embarrassed.”

The elections office reopened its doors at 3 p.m., after being closed for about an hour, apologizing and announcing that it had added a ballot-printing machine and more poll workers and would remain open until all voters in line at 5 p.m. had cast their in-person absentee ballots.

The crowd cheered. Around 400 people stood in line at 5 p.m. Campaign workers passed out bottled water and granola bars.

Despite lines up to seven hours long at times during eight days of early voting, Gimenez had decided late last week not to ask Gov. Scott to extend early-voting hours in Miami-Dade. The last early-voting polls officially closed at 7 p.m. Saturday, but they remained open until the last voter in line checked in with a poll worker — about 1 a.m. Sunday.

Gimenez defended his decision Sunday to refrain from asking the governor for more early-voting hours.

“We all knew what the rules were. When you start doing things like that, you’re opening to criticism of favoring one side or the other,” he said. “All of us knew it was going to be eight days of early voting. It was going to end on Saturday. There is going to be hundreds of polling places (open) on Tuesday.”

The county did add poll workers, machines and voting booths to early-voting sites to alleviate some wait times.

On Sunday, Gimenez said he was angrier at Hudak, his deputy, than at Townsley, the elections supervisor.

“I’m going to have to deal with this internally,” he said. “I’m not saying somebody’s going to be lose their job, but somebody made a poor error in judgment that’s not really helping the community.”

Hudak told Miami Herald news partner WFOR-CBS 4 that she approved the decision, which at the time she did not see as a major policy shift.

“I apologized to the mayor,” she said. “I should have told him. I made a bad call.”

Gimenez said the elections department wanted to offer more hours of in-person absentee voting in part because some voters had yet to receive ballots the county had mailed them due to a post office glitch.

Opening the elections office from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. was a work-around to a provision in the state law that eliminated early voting the Sunday before Election Day. The Florida Democratic Party filed a lawsuit in the wee hours of Sunday morning seeking to somehow extend voting in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties before Tuesday.

The law allows elections supervisors to accept in-person absentee ballots through 7 p.m. Tuesday — including Sunday, at the elections supervisor’s discretion. As of Friday, Miami-Dade and Broward had planned to open Sunday only for voters to drop off absentee ballots.

Miami-Dade switched gears to also let voters ask for a ballot and fill it out on the spot. Palm Beach and two Tampa Bay-area counties, Hillsborough and Pinellas, did the same.

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