“Nightmare:” Long lines, mail-ballot glitches mark South Florida early voting
November 01, 2012, 4:00am

By Patricia Mazzei and Marc Caputo

From Miami Haitians to a Harvard student from Broward, voting early in South Florida — be it by mail or in person — is proving troublesome.
Some voters have yet to receive absentee ballots they requested weeks ago from Broward County’s elections’ office. Long lines have plagued several early voting sites, especially in Hollywood and Miramar.

In Miami-Dade, the lines have been even longer. Wait times range from 30 minutes to six hours. The North Miami library has had such long waits that Haitian-American advocates held a news conference Wednesday to protest the “disenfranchisement.”

In Aventura, police officers waved away potential voters who couldn’t find parking spots. A county commissioner resorted to enlisting a staffer, to shuttle voters by van from distant parking lots to the polls.

And Miami Gardens had such long lines that former Gov. Charlie Crist, a President Obama campaign proxy, appeared and urged his successor, Gov. Rick Scott, to extend the length of early voting hours countywide. Crist did that in 2008, helping Obama win Florida.

“You cannot believe the line out here right now, it’s phenomenal,” Crist said. Of extending the number of early-voting hours or days, Crist said: “It’s just the right thing to do.”

Scott, a supporter of Republican Mitt Romney, probably won’t extend in-person early voting, which ends Saturday night.

“We think that the hours we have right now are the best hours we’ve ever had,” said Chris Cate, a spokesman for Florida’s elections division, part of Scott’s administration.

Scott signed a law last year cutting early voting days from 14 to eight and eliminated early voting on the Sunday before Election Day, when heavily Democratic African-American voters held “souls to the polls” rallies, though the law guaranteed a Sunday of early voting. The law caps access at 12 hours daily, and a cumulative total of 96 hours. In 2008, voters had a cumulative 120 hours thanks to Crist’s executive order.

In general, Democrats favor early voting, and Republicans favor voting absentee.

Out-of-state voters are having problems, too, in getting their absentee ballots.

Olivia Plana of Pompano Beach, a student at Harvard College, requested her ballot before Sept. 30. Broward Supervisor of Election Brenda Snipes’ office said a ballot was mailed on Oct. 9 and again on Oct. 26. Neither had arrived as of Wednesday.

Plana said she told the office that if she does not receive the ballot by Thursday, she will pay to have it sent to her overnight via FedEx — at her own expense.

“If I have to pay, I’ll pay,” said Plana, a 19-year-old voting in her first presidential election. “I don’t think I should have to pay to vote.”

Broward GOP Chairman Richard DeNapoli said he has received dozens of emails or calls from voters who have had problems getting their ballots.

Evelyn Perez-Verdia, a spokeswoman for Snipes, said the office does not track complaints from voters who requested absentee ballots but did not receive them. About 300 ballots have been returned as undeliverable, she said in an email.

Meantime, Palm Beach County is grappling with printing glitches involving 27,500 absentee ballots.

In Miami-Dade, Lumi Sava said she tried to vote six times at the Aventura Government Center but was turned away five times by police officers because the parking lot was full.

“I was persistent; I went six times,” said Sava, 66, of Sunny Isles Beach. “But how many people gave up after one?”

An Aventura police spokesman said officers have been instructed to direct voters to the overflow lot once the main lot is full — which is often, because people doing city business also park there. City employees, Maj. William “Skip” Washa said, have been parking elsewhere.

“It’s been a nightmare,” he said. “We’re doing the best that we possibly can.”

Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman, a Democrat who represents Aventura, said a staffer has been busing voters from parking lots to the polls in a white county van labeled “voter shuttle.”

“All in all, the people have been very nice about accepting that they have to wait,” Heyman said.

But Haitian-American activists aired a list of grievances Wednesday about early-voting sites: not enough ballot-printing and scanning machines, no special lines for elderly and handicapped voters, a lack of enough Creole translators.

“We believe these efforts to disenfranchise voters are not just biased but criminal,” said Marleine Bastien of Haitian Women of Miami.

Jean-Robert Lafortune, chairman of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, accused Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Penelope Townsley of ignoring initial requests for additional translators.

Townsley’s office said 24 of 26 poll workers at the North Miami library, frequented by many Haitian-American voters, speak Creole. The other two speak Spanish, said Carolina Lopez, an elections department spokeswoman. Bastien disputed that the poll workers speak Creole.

Since the beginning of early voting, Lopez said, the elections department has added another 19 Creole speakers at the site, including four people to help guide voters and manage the line outside the library.

After Townsley spent all day at the North Miami site Tuesday, the city-run library provided an extra room for voters. The elections department then installed 24 more voting booths, three more optical ballot scanners, one more ballot-printing machine and another voter check-in station.

On Wednesday, County Commissioner Jean Monestime, a Democrat, emailed and thanked Republican Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration for “promptly responding” in North Miami.

Lopez said another busy site, at the Coral Reef Library in Southwest Miami-Dade, also made more room Wednesday. The elections department plans to add 30 privacy booths, four optical ballot scanners and eight more poll workers there. At the North Dade Regional Library in Miami Gardens, the department will add two ballot scanners and seven more poll workers.

Poll workers at all voting sites have also been distributing water to people in line. Townsley cleared the move with Gimenez, who dropped by some sites himself over the weekend.

On Monday, the mayor’s office received three email complaints about the long lines. Among them was a letter signed by a host of Democrats and Democratic-leaning groups, including U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens, the AFL-CIO, NAACP and National Council of La Raza.

Gimenez blamed the lengthy waits on the lengthy ballots — 10 pages for most Miami-Dade voters. Because voters don’t cast ballots at their specific precincts during early voting, he noted, each ballot has to be personalized with the races and questions for that voter and then printed one-by-one. (The pages with statewide constitutional amendments have been pre-printed.)

“Sometimes, voters are a little bit confused by some of the ballot items,” Gimenez said. “Some voters aren’t aware that they don’t get to vote for every representative. There’s confusion there … And we have a tremendous amount of voters that really want to vote.”

The good news, he added: “We have been having cool days.”

Miami Herald staff writers Jacqueline Charles and Amy Sherman contributed to this report.