Florida's GOP lawmakers blamed for early-voting lines

Miami HeraldOctober 22, 2008 

Long lines of people wait to vote early Monday, October 20, 2008 at Alafaya Branch Library, Orange County Library in Orlando, Florida. (Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)

RED HUBER / ORLANDO SENTINEL / MCT

Saying early voting cost too much money with rules that weren't uniform, Republican legislators led a charge three years ago to set new statewide standards limiting the number of polling sites and their hours of operation.

Those revamped rules trimmed early voting from 12 hours per workday to eight.

During the first presidential election since Gov. Jeb Bush signed the bill in 2005, the new law's impact can be seen throughout South Florida: exhausting lines at polling sites in Miami-Dade and Broward that led voters to miss work, senior citizens to beg for chairs and voting advocates to question whether some are being disenfranchised.

From Miami City Hall to the Southwest Regional Library in Pembroke Pines, voters on Monday and Tuesday -- the first two days of early voting -- sweated out waits of two to five hours. Broward reported record turnout for early voting, which ends Nov. 2.

Now, the debate over those achingly long lines has turned political. Some Democratic leaders contend the bill intentionally slowed down a process that has historically benefited the party.

''They were using their power, their majority, to make it harder for people to vote, to gain a political advantage,'' said House Minority Leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "It was horrible.''

Republicans dispute any political motives, saying the new rules set much-needed uniform standards while saving government money by trimming polling times.

The 82-36 House vote was largely along party lines, with Democrat motions to expand the hours all falling flat.

House Bill 1567 took effect during the 2006 election cycle. Before its passage, early voting centers could remain open for up to 12 hours on weekdays, and for a total of eight hours over the weekend.

Today, early voting sites are limited to eight hours on weekdays and a total of eight aggregate hours on weekends. Local governments are now limited to using libraries, city halls and election headquarters as polling sites.

In Miami-Dade, where early voting booths open at 7 a.m., the centers stop taking voters at 3 -- well before most people get off work. Broward's early voting precincts run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the week.

One of the bill's sponsors, State Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Lutz, said his constituents complained it was inappropriate to vote in places of worship, as some counties permitted under old rules.

''If you're Jewish and have to go to St. Timothy's Catholic Church, people complained to us and said they're bothered by that,'' Ambler said.

While absentee ballots, especially in Florida with its large military presence, tend to favor Republicans, early voting has largely benefited Democrats. Early voting figures across Florida show that of the 153,000 early votes cast throughout the state Monday, almost 56 percent were from Democrats, 29 percent from Republicans and 15 percent from others, according to the Florida Democratic Party.

Nearly a quarter of the Democratic votes were cast in Broward, Miami-Dade, Duval, Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Orange counties, the report said.

There were long lines everywhere Monday and Tuesday, with many places giving voters a number to wait their turn, as if in a store line that stretched for blocks outside.

At the North Miami branch library on Monday, the crowd was filled with many Haitian immigrants or first-generation Americans of Haitian descent voting for the first time.

James Gardner, a community college supervisor from North Miami, tried to vote there Monday but left.

''I thought it might take me an hour. It's already been 2 ½,'' he said.

Though the library stopped letting people enter the line at 3 p.m., some didn't reach a voting machine for another five hours, said elections office clerk Gerard Perez. ''We basically had a 13-hour day,'' he said.

Ten minutes before polls opened at the Southwest Regional Library in Pembroke Pines, a line stretched 150 strong -- and continued to grow.

Standing at the end of the line, Stan Lubin said he found the wait ironic.

''We're stuck in lines trying to avoid the lines,'' said Lubin, 64, of Davie.

The delays are likely to continue during the two-week early voting period. Since 2004, Miami-Dade has added 184,514 voters and is now up to 1,243,315.

Broward also totals more than one million registered voters, making the two counties the only ones in the state with that distinction.

Almost 22,000 voters in Miami-Dade and Broward cast ballots Monday. Miami-Dade, with 20 polling sites open for early voting and 9,000 trained poll workers, expects to spend about $6 million during the process.

Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Lester Sola said that for the past three years he has futilely sent legislative packages to Tallahassee seeking more control over the local early process. He is now required to provide a list of polling sites to the state 30 days before Election Day, but says counties need the flexibility to hold early voting outside traditional government buildings.

''Why overwhelm a library when you have a large regional park next door?'' Sola asked. "We had a lot more flexibility before.''

Sola said plenty of machines are in storage that will be used on Election Day when the county opens 765 precincts -- but he is limited in their use now because the size of the sites available.

Still, he says, staff are constantly monitoring sites around the county, and machines that check identification will be added where necessary.

He brushed aside a suggestion by U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, to offer those in line mail-in ballots instead.

''The last thing I'm going to do is offer an opportunity, and have that person not be able to vote. I'm not about to push one means of voting or another,'' Sola said.

After meeting with Meek, Sola said Goodwill Ambassadors will be added to locations to ease the comfort level, and the county's elections website will be updated constantly with the addresses of less crowded voting sites. Broward has also released expected wait times for its early voting sites.

Ambler, the Lutz Republican, said voters should not feel as if they are being deprived of the right to vote, and that people can always vote by mail.

''This is the first day of early voting. I think you'll see an initial push, and it'll taper down substantially,'' he said.

Late Tuesday, Sola said he expected more voters Tuesday than on Monday. He spoke briefly to Miami-Dade commissioners, telling them the lines were long but not unexpectedly so.

''Voting take sacrifice,'' he said. "And people are willing to take that sacrifice to cast a ballot.''

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