Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Politics

Lines snarl voting in Miami-Dade, Tampa Bay sees other hurdles

TAMPA — Florida voters faced a series of frustrating hurdles Tuesday, from tighter provisional ballot rules to mechanical glitches to lines that stretched late into the Miami night.

But they persevered.

Facing a historically long ballot, more than 8 million of them voted, attracting the eyes of a riveted nation in yet another close presidential race in which Florida played a decisive role.

About half of Florida's ballots had already been cast early or by mail by the time polls opened across the state at 7 a.m. Tuesday.

But that didn't stop exceedingly long lines in Miami-Dade, the state's largest county, prompting Mayor Carlos Gimenez to personally apologize to voters stranded in rock concert-sized lines at UTD Towers in the booming Brickell area of downtown Miami.

"I'm sorry and embarrassed," Gimenez said. "That should not have happened. That's something that we have to look at for the next election."

In Tampa Bay, the troubles were less severe, though evident.

In Hillsborough County, electrical problems caused power to go out for less than an hour in part of the main elections center on N Falkenburg Road, which a voting rights group said made it difficult for poll workers to verify registration information.

People in Hernando County were still casting ballots at one precinct at 9:15 p.m.

And in Pinellas County, more than 12,000 voters received a bogus robocall from the supervisor of elections saying they could vote "tomorrow," meaning Wednesday.

But the worst of it was in South Florida, were thousands of voters waited in line for up to six hours to wade through a five-page, double-sided, tri-lingual, optical-scan ballot.

Voters were still waiting in line at 10:30 p.m., more than three and a half hours after the polls were supposed to close.

Poll workers had trouble finding some voters' names in the hard-copy registry for one six-precinct site and only two of eight ballot scanners were working at the same time.

"This is a mess," said Alexandra Lange, a 50-year-old Brickell resident. "There is a bottleneck at the door. It is chaos."

Brickell elections clerk Daniel Molden blamed the delays on the unexpectedly large turnout, even after Miami-Dade faced six-hour waits on the last day of early voting Saturday.

"It's just a lot of people," Molden said. "We had trouble to start with."

Secretary of State Ken Deztner said the long lines in some counties resulted from decisions by county election supervisors to deploy personnel and equipment.

"The length of the ballot is an issue, and we knew it would be," Detzner said. "But people have been very patient today. It's a heartwarming thing to see."

Lines to vote in Tampa Bay were not nearly as long as those in South Florida.

Instead, voters dodged parking problems, power outages, raindrops and temperamental voting machines.

Heidi Kay, 48, lost power at her home in northeast Pinellas' East Lake community and similarly discovered no power at her polling place. But she had studied the 11 long constitutional amendments on the ballot before going into the darkened library to vote.

"When I pulled up, the workers there told me the power was out, but everyone was calm,'' Kay said. "They guided me through the dark to where I needed to sign in and told me the equipment was being run on a generator . . . I left feeling very proud. You hear about all this trouble, and here in East Lake, they got it right.''

Several Hillsborough precincts didn't have working phones for part of the morning, but they were operating again by 1 p.m.

One of the most bizarre incidents occurred at an American Legion post in Tampa.

David Johnson, 52, an associate professor of history at the University of South Florida, showed up to vote at that Tampa precinct, only to be told that he had moved to Orlando two weeks ago.

That was news to Johnson, a Democrat who had not moved and who recently got a sample ballot at his home from the same county elections office that was telling him to cast a provisional ballot.

"It's very suspicious," Johnson said. "To make sure no illegal votes are counted, they screwed up the rights of legitimate voters."

It turned out another David Johnson with the same birth date — living in Orlando — had recently made a change to his voting record. Hillsborough elections officials said Orange County inadvertently deleted Tampa's David Johnson from the voter database.

"It was a keystroke error," said Hillsborough elections spokesman Travis Abercrombie. Abercrombie said Supervisor of Elections Earl Lennard personally called Johnson to tell him his vote would count.

Hillsborough also dealt with issues of equipment failure and allegations that poll workers gave out misinformation.

The phones went down at several Hillsborough precincts Tuesday morning, making it hard for poll workers to verify voter information. According to the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a Washington D.C.-based group, voting locations in Hillsborough were "down; computers, phones, elections office are completely 'systems down.' "

If poll workers can't verify information, a voter has to cast a provisional ballot, which has a higher rejection rate than regular ballots.

The Lawyers' Committee said poll workers gave voters wrong information as to where to vote, so that when they arrived at a precinct, they had to vote provisionally. Two such precincts were the University Area Community Center, 14013 N. 22nd St., and Lake Forest Clubhouse at 14735 Lake Forest Drive

This being Florida, some things couldn't be explained.

Pinellas elections officials said 12,525 people got phone calls Tuesday with an outdated message that they had until 7 p.m. "tomorrow" to return absentee ballots. The calls should have gone out Monday but didn't.

The county quickly sent a corrected message to those voters.

In Pasco County, hearing one voter's gripe, Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley tweeted: "Voter complained 'blue' tape we use to designate line to optical scanner is a 'subliminal' message to vote Dem! Seriously?"

Times staff writer Lee Logan and Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report and information from the News Service of Florida was used. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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