The Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition


(MDERC)

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Our Issues

The Coalition’s Demands

The work of the Coalition, its effectiveness, preparation and full grasp of the issues, earned it the respect of elected officials, County staff and outside third parties who descended upon our County in the aftermath of the September 10th debacle.  The Coalition’s successes should be a source of pride for this County and this Community.  In the process of making change, the Coalition bridged the chasm between the citizenry and its government and the end product was nothing short of revolutionary.  The reason for this is simple; while the County focused its energies on “having a smooth-running election,” the Coalition focused its efforts on bringing about meaningful reforms that would benefit and empower the voters of Miami-Dade County, rich or poor, black or white, immigrant or native born, English, Spanish or Creole speaking.

1.      Structural Reforms to Deal With Problem Technology

There have been few reports issued and no studies made of the effect of the purchase of the iVotronic Touch Screen Voting devices and counters from ES&S.  However, there is absolutely no question that because the choice in technology caused many of the problems seen on September 10th, it also drove many of the reforms implemented by Miami-Dade County.  In fact, both the Inspector General’s report and the September 20, 2002 letter from this Coalition devoted much energy to recommending that voting machines be set up and activated the night before, that technicians be brought in and that poll workers receive sufficient training and testing.  Those logistical demands were ostensibly met.  The fact that they were met does not in and of itself answer the question of whether the November 5th election was “a success.”  In the pages that follow, the Coalition analyzes whether the County’s formula for taming problem technology and for compensating for an ineffective elections staff, can really serve as a model for future elections.

2.      Creation of a Checklist

In testimony provided to the Miami-Dade County Commission’s Election Oversight Task Force on September 30, 2002, the Coalition demanded that the County develop minimum requirements for a standard checklist setting forth every function that should be completed before, during, and after an election; as well as the official, poll worker or County employee for each and every task that must be performed.  The purpose of the checklist is to serve as an accountability tool, requiring specific designation of duties to individuals, and signatures that certify the accomplishment of each task.

The concept of an elections task checklist is neither new nor revolutionary.  In its November 2001 report entitled Election Reform: An Analysis of Proposals and the Commission’s Recommendations for Improving America’s Election System,2 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended that elections officials establish a standard elections tasks checklist.  According to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission: 

A checklist would be useful because it would help ensure that long enough before an election, the necessary systems and procedures were in order. It would enable those responsible to identify problems in advance and correct them. Attaching timelines to actions would also ensure that appropriate steps are taken far enough in advance to correct problems. A checklist would also provide the opportunity for those responsible to verify to local, state, and federal officials, as well as the public, that they have prepared appropriately.

No checklist was ever provided by the County, despite repeated requests from the Coalition.  The County’s failure to provide the requested checklist makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for this Coalition to judge the success of the County’s undertaking.  This is especially true in light of the fact that the County spent millions of dollars on the November 5th election (some reports indicate $4,000,000, and others allege that the amount was far in excess of this).

3.      Line of Command – Police at the Helm

The Coalition’s demands for the creation of a clear structure and clear lines of accountability were only partially met or not at all.  This is troubling.  It indicates that the County put its desire not to be embarrassed again, ahead of core democratic concepts and ahead of the creation of clear lines of accountability.

In an e-mail sent by the County Manager on September 22, 2002, the County Manager stated that he had designated the Director of the Miami-Dade Police Department to be the “project manager” for the November 5th election.  A copy of the September 22nd e-mail is attached as Exhibit “A.”  Based upon this e-mail reference, at the September 30, 2002 hearing, the Coalition demanded that the County develop and circulate an organizational chart setting forth the line of command and reporting structure of the County’s elections team.  The purpose of the organizational chart was to publicize the lines of accountability and to “dispel myths and rumors that may serve to dissuade voters from turning out to the polls on election day.” 

At the September 30th Elections Oversight Task Force hearing, the various Commissioners present recognized the need to minimize the visible presence of police at the polls and emphasized the need with County officials.  However, the Commissioners failed to focus on the bad precedent that was being set by having a “police-run” election. 

The organizational chart was slow in coming.  Interestingly, when it did come, it revealed that November 5th was a “police run” election.  See Exhibit “B” attached.  This is exactly what the Coalition feared.

The justification for turning the November 5th election into a “police run” election may have made sense on its face because of the short time frame and the police’s “logistical” experience.  However, the Coalition doubts that the police department is the only body in this County with the ability or willingness to prepare for, organize and run elections.  In addition, the Coalition does not find the police department to be the appropriate body for performing these functions.  The Coalition points out that the office of the Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections, working in conjunction with civilian poll workers, is supposed to be able to do this.  If the body charged with conducting elections cannot do so effectively and properly, it is time to analyze why and to consider reorganization.

The Coalition was at least apparently successful in forcing the County to minimize police presence at the polls.  In fact, it was the Coalition that identified the problem of having investigators from the State Attorney’s office roaming the precincts in shirts that read “POLICE” and the Coalition lobbied successfully for this not to be done.  The fact remains, however, that in his memorandum titled General Election Update, which is dated October 25, 2002, the County Manager stated that the police department’s involvement “has been crucial in helping me develop an achievable General Election plan that you now see unfolding before you and which will become the starting point for the formal recommendations as to how the County should prepare for and execute future elections.”  The Coalition’s recommendations for how the police department should be used in future elections are set forth in Part IV, Section 11.

4.      The Mailing of Sample Ballots

From the outset, the Coalition demanded that the County mail out a sample ballot in English, Spanish, and Creole to every registered voter in Dade County.  The County agreed and an English/Spanish sample ballot was sent to every household in Miami-Dade County.  Regrettably, through a yet unexplained deliberate decision, the County chose not to include the Creole translation in its mailing.

The decision was particularly galling in light of the fact that the language issue with respect to Creole is the subject of a Consent Decree that was the result of a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice against the County.  It is also troubling because it exposed the County’s flawed belief that a different program for Spanish-speaking and Creole-speaking voters is not a problem.  The bottom line is that regardless of what may be required by any Consent Decree, this County must be guided by considerations of fairness.

As a result of the demands of the Coalition, last minute efforts were made to hand-distribute approximately 30,000 Creole sample ballots in the waning days before the November 5th election.  These efforts were sorely inadequate in light of the fact that there are over 60,000 Creole speaking registered voters in the County.  Miami-Dade is a trilingual County.  Those who reside here have the absolute right to vote, and to ready themselves to vote, in English, Spanish or Creole.  In order for those in Miami-Dade County who are responsible for running elections, not to soon forget their embarrassing and reprehensible decision, the County Commission should therefore memorialize in an ordinance, this and other basic obligations of the County’s elections officials.

On a happier note, the sample ballot proved crucial in reducing the time each voter had to spend at the voting machine.  This helped keep lines moving.  The success of the Coalition’s sample ballot initiative was clearly evidenced by the fact that on the days preceding the election, the County’s elected leaders and County officials were heard repeatedly urging voters to “study their sample ballots” before coming to the polls, in order to expedite the voting process and reduce the time voters had to spend in line waiting to vote.

5.      The Mailing of Frequently Asked Questions Pamphlet

In its list of demands and suggestions hand-delivered on September 20, 2002, the Coalition requested that together with the sample ballot, the County mail out to every registered voter, a copy of the “Make Your Vote Count” pamphlet produced by the League of Women Voters of Dade County and the American Civil Liberties Union (the “Pamphlet”).  (A copy of the Pamphlet is available on the Coalition’s web site at www.reformcoalition.org).  The Pamphlet was provided to the County in English, Spanish, and Creole.  The County agreed to mail out the Pamphlet, with fairly minor modifications, to every household in Miami-Dade County.  As was the case with the sample ballot, the County failed to include a Creole translation in its mailing even though such a translation was provided by the Coalition.  The decision, again, was both unexplained and inexplicable.

6.      Independent Observers

In its list of demands and suggestions hand-delivered on September 20, 2002, the Coalition demanded that the County invite and bring independent experienced credible observers to Miami-Dade County for the November 5th election.  The Coalition further asked that those observers be given full and unfettered access to every aspect of the voting process, including, but not limited to, poll worker training procedures and classes; machine operations procedures; poll location opening and machine activation; actual voting; delivery of ballots and voting machines; counting of ballots; and certification of results.

The persuasive and well-reasoned lobbying of the Coalition resulted in the Miami-Dade County Commission voting to bring the Center for Democracy to Miami-Dade County.  In an unprecedented and historical vote, our County became the first governmental structure within the United States to open itself up to the independent outside observer process.  As with any “first,” however, the decision was mired in controversy and fear.  That fear was ultimately proven to be baseless.  Contrary to the dooms-day protestations of the nay-sayers, the bringing in of independent outside observers on the part of the County lent credibility to the reform processes that the County was undertaking and it also created an air of transparency and accountability that was clearly not present in previous elections.

Furthermore, those who opposed the bringing of independent outside observers to Miami-Dade County, charging that by doing so we would look like a “Banana Republic,” were simply uninformed.  On June 29, 1990, the United States of America, as a participating State in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), signed on to the Copenhagen Document, a copy of which is attached as Exhibit “C.”  On the issue of observers, Section 8 of the Copenhagen Document states as follows:

The participating States consider that the presence of observers, both foreign and domestic, can enhance the electoral process for States in which elections are taking place. They therefore invite observers from any other CSCE participating States and any appropriate private institutions and organizations who may wish to do so to observe the course of their national election proceedings, to the extend (sic) permitted by law. They will also endeavor to facilitate similar access for election proceedings held below the national level. Such observers will undertake not to interfere in the electoral proceedings.

In the days and hours preceding the November 5th election, the Coalition had the opportunity to meet with representatives from the Center for Democracy.  The Coalition also had the opportunity to raise all our issues and demands with representatives from the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the OSCE, which was here at the invitation of the U.S. State Department.

While the Coalition applauded the Commission’s vote to bring in independent, experienced observers, it also recognized that it would have been far preferable for the Commission to obtain public input into the choice and selection of who the observer would be.  In the same vein, although County funds were well-spent on hiring independent observers, in the future, the County should investigate the possibility of outside funding to cover the costs of this important component of the election process.  However, the Coalition firmly maintains that independent, credible, experienced observers should be made a part of Miami-Dade County’s elections process, regardless of the availability of non-County funding, until the County has developed a clear track record of well-run, free and fair elections.

At the time of the Coalition’s writing of this report, the reports of the various independent outside observers had not yet been released.  However, one thing is clear: the historic presence of independent outside observers in Miami-Dade County for the November 5th election served to highlight the shortcomings of the current system which permits candidates and political parties to station unlimited numbers of poll watchers inside the polls, while at the same time denying entry into those very polls to non-partisan entities whose only aim is to protect the rights of voters.

This reality was starkly brought to light during the final days of the campaign when it was discovered that the Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections had deputized some 450 partisan poll watchers who claimed to be part of a Political Action Committee created to “stop” a certain candidate.  The deputizing of these 450 partisan poll watchers was bitterly ironic in light of the Supervisor of Elections’ repeated refusal to permit members of the Coalition from gaining the same access to the inside of the polls.  The stated aim of the Coalition, which was to protect the rights of voters irrespective of party, candidate, or issue affiliation was in stark contrast with the aim of the Political Action Committee, which could only accomplish its goals of “stopping” the candidate by “disenfranchising” voters who supported the candidate.  This reality should have provided sufficient impetus for the Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections to level the playing field.  However, it did not.  Only 2 members of the Coalition were deputized (and this was at the insistence of the County Manager).  Meanwhile, the de-certification of the 450 Political Action Committee poll watchers was accomplished not by the Supervisor of Elections, but only after the County was sued and lost an injunction in the Florida state courts.

The guidelines on the rights of partisan poll watchers are clear:  They are permitted to challenge a voter’s right to cast a ballot.  See Exhibit “D,” attached.  Miami-Dade County currently has no system in place to counter the partisan influence of poll watchers.  Those in Miami-Dade County who opposed independent outside observers, in fact opposed the only system devised thus far to provide access inside the polls, to non-partisans who are beholden not to candidates or parties, but to voters.  Ironically, the opponents to independent outside observers are many of the same voices who opposed the deputizing of non-partisan Coalition members whose only goal was to insure that eligible voters would not be turned away on election day.  The question therefore needs to be asked whether these voices really have the best interests of voters at heart.

7.      Expansion of Early Voting

In both its letter dated September 20, 2002 and in testimony provided to the Miami-Dade County Commission’s Elections Oversight Task Force on September 30, 2002, the Coalition demanded that the County expand early voting facilities to accommodate locales with large numbers of employees, such as hospitals.  It also proposed that early voting facilities be open for extended hours from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. and on the two weekends preceding the Tuesday of the election.

While expansion of the facilities was not possible, the County did, based on the demands from the Coalition, expand early voting hours from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and add weekend voting.  Saturday voting was made available at all 14 locations instead of just one, as had been the case for the September 10th election.  As a result of Coalition demands, the Stephen P. Clark Center site was open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on the two Sundays prior to the November 5th election.

Preliminary reports and anecdotal evidence seem to indicate that turnout of voters from minority communities, especially Black voters, was helped by the availability of early voting and the expanded voting times and weekend voting which made the system accessible to voters.  However, continuing education and the creation of adequate safeguard for votes cast by early voters, is needed to assure the Community that early voting is a legitimate and valid form of voting.  See Part IV, Section 9.  Steps should also be taken to counteract any potential decrease in voter turnout due to implementation of early voting.  See Part II, Section 11.

8.      Back-up System of Paper Substitute Ballots

In both its letter dated September 20, 2002 and in testimony provided to the Miami-Dade County Commission’s Elections Oversight Task Force on September 30, 2002, the Coalition demanded that the County create a back-up system of paper substitute ballots that could be used by voters in case of machine failure.  Consistent with the Coalition’s demands, the County Commission required the provision of back-up paper ballots at the level of 25% of the registered voters in each precinct.

On November 5th, the back-up system of substitute ballots proved crucial to over 120 voters at Precinct 653, South Miami/C.G. Elks Lodge, located at 6304 SW 78 Street.  Precinct 653 reported that due to problems with the activators, the Precinct could not open ballots for voters on any of its machines.  Voters cast their votes on substitute ballots until new machines were up and operational by 9:45 AM.  Because of back-up system of substitute ballots, no voters were turned away and no delays were reported.

9.      Provisional Ballots

Under Florida Statute Section 101.048, a voter claiming to be properly registered in the County and eligible to vote but whose eligibility cannot be determined is entitled to vote a provisional ballot.3  However, the Statute clearly states that such a vote will only be counted if the voter voted at his or her properly designated precinct.  Because of this requirement that the voter be at the correct precinct when casting a provisional ballot, the Coalition demanded that the County inform voters that they must be at the correct precinct when casting a provisional ballot.  The County did so, including the following instruction in the Miami-Dade Elections Procedures Manual: “Make it clear to voter that if they are in the wrong precinct, their provisional ballot will not be accepted by the canvassing board.  If you have determined that the voter resides in another precinct, direct the voter to the proper precinct.”  See Elections Manual Update #2, Exhibit “E.”  Preliminary review, however, has already suggested that a great deal more training is necessary in order to ensure that poll workers direct voters to the proper precinct before issuing a provisional ballot.  See Part IV, Section 2.

As a result of repeated requests, County officials on November 1, 2002 also amended the Elections Procedures Manual to note that if the 25 provisional ballots issued ran out, substitute ballots could be used as provisional ballots without obtaining authorization of the Supervisor of Elections.  See Exhibit “E”.  The instructions directed the Clerk to call the Logistics Help Desk to have additional provisional ballot envelopes delivered.  The change was important because in cases where authorization of the Supervisor might be required, votes could be lost if the authorization could not be readily obtained due to busy phone lines and related problems.  However, as the Coalition commented at the November 4th meeting of the Elections Oversight Task Force, the County provided no indication of how Clerks would be notified of this important last-minute change.


2 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Election Reform: An Analysis of Proposals and the Commission’s Recommendations for Improving America’s Election System, November 2001, Washington, D.C.  The report is available at http://www.usccr.gov/.

3  Florida Statutes Section Florida 101.048 (2002).

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