Make every Vote

After learning that almost 8,000 votes were not counted in Miami-Dade County’s primary election, community and civic leaders remain on edge about the November general election, which will yield three times as many ballots, officials say.

We have to have our guard up the entire time to make sure that all citizens get an opportunity to vote.”

– Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Jordan

“With this administration, nothing is certain,” said Miami-Dade District 1 Commissioner Barbara Jordan. “With all of the negativity and doubts in the community, we cannot take for granted that anything will be smooth. We have to have our guard up the entire time to make sure that all citizens get an opportunity to vote.”

Jordan is one of seven commissioners who co-sponsored two resolutions alongside Chairwoman Audrey M. Edmonson, forcing the Miami-Dade County Elections Department to implement new strategies for a safe, secure and efficient primary election during COVID-19.

The first resolution, which was introduced in May, directed the elections department to send vote-by-mail ballot request forms to the households of all registered Miami-Dade voters who had not yet requested a vote-by-mail ballot, and with it directions for updating a voter’s signature. It also made available vote-by-mail ballot request forms and information on updating a voter’s signature at libraries and parks.

“If you have had a medical condition that resulted in a tremble, that would be enough to change your signature, so it’s important that you update your signature,” said Jordan. “We don’t want a wasted vote out there.”

The matter of wasted votes brought about major contention in August after 3,512 ballots were rejected in Miami-Dade because of no signature or a voter’s failure to match the signature on file.

Deputy Supervisor of Elections Suzy Trutie said there are instructions posted on the department’s website and that mailers are going out showing voters how to update their signatures, and how to cure their signatures if they make a mistake.

According to Jordan, it was Edmonson who “was the leader in elections by taking the bull by the horns to make sure Miami-Dade is credited as the best in the nation in this election.”

Edmonson sponsored a second resolution in July to provide drive-through drop-off locations at all early voting sites during early voting to safeguard voters from the virus. Now, there will be employee-manned boxes stationed under a tent in the parking lots of all 33 early voting sites come Oct. 19. Voters may drive up to the station, show identification and surrender their ballots without leaving their vehicles.

Edmonson was unavailable to speak with The Miami Times for this story is transitioning out of the office where she spent 15 years serving District 3.

Unmatched signatures and photo IDs

Gepsie Metellus hopes to take Edmonson’s seat and has every reason herself to be concerned about the November elections.

Her race was forced into a run-off after long-time District 5 Commissioner Keon Hardemon garnered 49.2% of the votes. Metellus won 21.2% – the highest among the also-rans.

“I expected a runoff and now here we are. But I did expect to perform better in certain parts of the district, like in certain Little Haiti precincts, but a combination of things happened,” said Metellus, who would be the only Black or Haitian woman on the commission if elected.

She said that she knows she will do better on the November ballot because there will be more attention on this election and because she says “it’s the year of the woman.”

“My concern – the little things that are put in place to keep us from voting,” Metellus said.

One of those little things, some say, is that voters are required to show a photo ID when dropping off their ballot at an early voting site.

Trutie said this is required so that if there’s a discrepancy with a ballot, the elections department has a reliable way to contact the voter to cure the ballot up until Thursday at 5 p.m. after Election Day.

“For everything we do, there is a Florida law or statute for it,” she said.

However, there is no law requiring proof of ID to drop off a vote-by-mail ballot and it is not being practiced in Broward or even in Hillsborough County, where 24-hour drop boxes are under video surveillance for voters to simply drop off their ballot and leave.

What’s more, just because you have presented ID and dropped off your ballot at a box in Miami-Dade, that does not mean your ballot is cured on the spot. Later, it will be opened and sorted and must be matched with a signature in the system for it to count.

“We have learned from past elections ... so we are always looking to see what we can do better to make the process easier for the voter,” said Trutie. “Through the years, we have tweaked our policies and procedures.”

These procedures have been reviewed time and time again, says Trutie, because – as home to the largest county in Florida – Miami-Dade has often contributed to razor-thin margins in high-profile races.

In 2012, Barack Obama took the state by less than a single percentage point. Then, in 2016, President Donald Trump won Florida by just 1.2 percentage points. The gubernatorial election of 2018 lingered for days after Election Day and many voters still talk about the election meltdown in 2000 where Florida’s recount caused the presidential decision to drag on for 33 days until it was resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Yet Broward County is just second to Miami-Dade in size and, in its August primaries, 99% of vote-by-mail ballots were counted with only seven rejected, said Broward communication officer Steve Vancore.

Hillsborough County – the fourth largest county in the state – had only 700 ballots with signature issues and cured 346 of them, said Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer.

Interestingly, Latimer is the president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections and wrote a letter to Gov. DeSantis back in May on behalf of the cohort, requesting emergency help for the offices.

A history of uncounted votes

In Latimer’s letter, he requested more flexibility around in-person voting and vote-by-mail for all 67 counties and “much-needed CARES Act funding to protect our voters.”

This week Latimer told The Miami Times all the funding has been distributed and that statewide, he believed there were “some extremely smooth primaries.”

Latimer credits an easier elections process in part to the governor for offering civic leave to state employees, and the turnout improved because of it.

“I have about 100 state employees to work our general election,” said Latimer.

Still, most counties had their fair share of too-late-to-count vote-by-mail ballots. For the August primaries, Hillsborough received 2,000, Broward, 5,311 and Miami-Dade had 4,167. In the end, all of these ballots were rejected because they did not arrive by 7 p.m. on Election Day.

Many were signed and postmarked late, though, said Latimer.

Following nationwide accusations of voter suppression against the U.S. Postmaster General and a lawsuit filed by the NAACP, the U.S. Postal Service sent all customers a postcard in the mail this month stating, “If you plan to vote by mail, plan ahead.”

On this postcard is printed a checklist of ideas to help voters plan better, including recommending that voters mail their ballot off at least seven days before the Nov. 3 cutoff.

Then, on Oct. 1, Miami-Dade will send vote-by-mail ballots to everyone who requested one along with a comprehensive instructional pamphlet. In mid-October, all voters will receive a sample ballot with voting option instructions, said Trutie.

“Miami-Dade has the resources needed to conduct a successful general election,” Trutie said.

Joe Scott, Broward County Elections Department supervisor-elect, believes this thinking is a gross underestimation.

“We always receive three times more in a general election just by nature of greater interest,” said Scott. “If August was a challenge, November’s going to be a much bigger challenge.”

Scott has the math right.

In Miami-Dade’s 2016 presidential election, a total of 309,473 vote-by-mail ballots were received and 4,015 of them were rejected.

The odds are even higher due to the likelihood of quarantined voters who will vote at home, then either drop off ballots or send them through the mail.

With that in mind, Miami-Dade’s elections department encourages all voters to use its tracking system to make sure their ballot was processed successfully.

The only thing officials warn against is dropping off a ballot for another person at an early voting site.

“We’d rather you help someone put it in the mailbox for the post office to pick it up. We need to make sure that all of our constituents are getting the help they need in order to vote early,” said Jordan.

In fact, according to the county’s vote-by-mail instructions, you are not allowed to drop off anyone else’s ballot at an early voting site unless you have applied to be their designee on Election Day.

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