MIAMI GARDENS – Mindful of election trickery and voting irregularities from previous elections, local politicians and voting rights organizations were out in force this week to offer assistance to voters and keep an eye on the early voting process.
District 1 Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Jordan visited the North Dade Regional Library in Miami Gardens to see how things were going at the early voting site. What she found prompted her to get Lester Sola, Miami-Dade’s elections supervisor, on the phone.
Greeted by what appeared to be a short, manageable line of voters, Jordan initially thought that election glitches from Monday, Oct. 20, the first day of early voting, had been rectified.
Enter Cherilyn Gayle. Gayle is a volunteer with the county’s Community Relations Board’s Goodwill Ambassadors program. She said she distributed numbered tickets to several dozen voters to get them out of the sun. Because these voters were allowed to leave the site and return later, the true length of the line was distorted.
Gayle said she began the system because, due to heat-related health issues, paramedics had been called to assist three voters on Monday.
The situation unfolded even as early voters across South Florida experienced wait times of two to five hours, according to news reports.
Jordan was concerned that the “shorter” line she encountered may have masked real problems. She also questioned the legality of the process and whether it had the approval of the elections department. It did not.
“When I came out, the first impression I got was that the lines were short. We can’t really anticipate the mass of the problem because it gives a false impression that the lines are short. So the problems may be greater than we think they are,” the commissioner explained to Gayle.
The Miami-Dade elections department is not aware of – nor has it approved – a number distribution system, according to its spokesperson, Marie Bertot.
Bertot said the department is making an effort to keep the process as smooth as possible and that, so far, there have been no complaints.
“So far, we’ve had more than 25,000 voters already cast their ballot the first two days of early voting,’’ Bertot said on Wednesday, Oct. 22. “Now we want to make sure everyone is comfortable, so we are passing out water, we are giving chairs for the elderly and people with disabilities.”
Voters may also contact the elections department to learn approximate wait times at the various early-voting sites.
“We’re posting this information online at miamidade.gov, and we’re also making the information available via our 311 answer center,” Bertot said, adding that voters should also be aware of the other options available to them, like absentee voting.
“You can request an absentee ballot…by calling 311 or going to miamidade.gov,’’ she said. “You can vote from the comfort of your own home. A first-class stamp will get that in the mail.
You need to get it postmarked by the general election of Nov. 4, or you can drop it off that day up until 7 o’clock [p.m.] at a voting site.”
TROUBLESHOOTING LONG LINES
Upon encountering an extremely long line on the first day of early voting, Jordan said she was able to troubleshoot the long-line problem and have it corrected.
“I was able to go inside and I saw that the problem was verification,’’ Jordan said. “They only had two verification sites. Now they have five. So we were able to remedy some of that.”
Yvonne Robinson was on site to offer a different type of assistance. Robinson works with AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union) Voter
Protection Coalition, a non-partisan organization that Robinson said is “just making sure that people’s rights are protected when they go in to vote.”
AFSCME has endorsed the Obama-Biden ticket.
Members of the coalition include the AFL-CIO, American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Advancement Project, People for the American Way Foundation, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and SEIU/Local 1199.
The coalition’s presence came in handy at least twice on the first day of early voting.
“We had an experience with an elderly lady who had been registered to vote for at least 10 years. She went in with her voter card and they said she wasn’t registered so she came back out. We made some phone calls to the elections department and they put her back on the register and she was able to vote,” Robinson said.
Robinson said her group was also able to help a young man who was turned away by elections personnel because he did not have a driver’s license.
“The rules say if you have a picture ID and an ID with a signature on it, you can [vote]. So we made him pull out all of his ID, got what he needed, and he went right back in and voted.”
Robinson advises voters who encounter problems not to give up.
“They should just know their rights. We have people working the polls who don’t mean any harm, and then there may be a mistake at the election board. Be persistent. Be professional and persistent,” she said.
UNFAZED BY LONG WAITS
Camille Connelly, a supporter of Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential bid, was not fazed by the wait and did not anticipate any problems.
“I’ve been waiting for about four hours now. This is a historical event and everyone needs to take part,” she said.
Arlonia Davis, a retired real estate executive, had only been waiting for an hour and a half, but said she was “willing to wait as long as necessary.”
Davis said waiting in line was a “light affliction” compared to “what people have done and gone through to get the right to vote. It’s a pleasure for me to be here. We hope his grandmother lives to see him inaugurated.”
Obama has announced that he will take four days off from campaigning to be in Hawaii with his seriously ill grandmother, Madelyn Payne Dunham, who turns 86 on Sunday, Oct. 26.
Dunham broke her hip recently and is “gravely ill,’’ her brother, Charles Payne, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Back in Miami Gardens, Rodney Kohn, 34, did not seem to mind the long line, either.
“We are looking for change. I think my vote will push the change. I think he’ll be our next president.”
Kohn’s wife, Kimberly, was also in line. Registered since she was old enough to vote, the 29-year-old adjuster said this election is really about the couple’s three children.
“It’s going to set the ground work. It’s not even for us, it’s going to be the start of change, but it’s really for our kids,” she said.
To report voting problems, contact the Miami-Dade elections department at 305-499-VOTE or the Broward Supervisor of Elections office at Elections@Browardsoe.org or 954-357-7050.
Photo: Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Jordan