Once elec­tion laugh­ing­stock, Mi­ami has cleaned up its act

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Local & State - BY LINDA ROBERT­SON lrobert­[email protected]­ami­her­ald.com

Christina White couldn’t help her­self. Af­ter two straight weeks of 18- and 24-hour days, count­ing votes in­stead of sheep, she yawned.

But it was a brief, pre­cise yawn, akin to a neatly col­ored-in black bub­ble, and none of the peo­ple busy ex­am­in­ing bal­lots in the re­count room seemed to no­tice.

White, their un­flap­pable leader, didn’t miss a beat as she bent her head, nar­rowed her eyes and in­ter­preted an­other over­vote in the race for state agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner.

It was late Fri­day night at the Mi­ami-Dade elec­tions depart­ment head­quar­ters in Do­ral, but tri­umphant smiles lit up the stale cof­fee-scented air. The county’s re­count of three very close elec­tions was com­plete at 11 p.m. af­ter seven pres­surepacked days.

About 31,000 prob­lem­atic bal­lots in the agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner con­test had been tal­lied by hand in eight hours, and once again Florida’s most pop­u­lous county had reached the fin­ish line ahead of Broward and Palm Beach.

“For me and my team, we feel very proud, very re­lieved and very ea­ger to get some rest,” White said Satur­day morn­ing. Maybe she’d catch a nap later. She was at her son’s soc­cer game.

It’s been an­other messy, nasty elec­tion sea­son in the Sun­shine State, but Mi­amiDade is a na­tional laugh­ing­stock no more.

Eighteen years af­ter the hang­ing-chad and “Brooks Brothers Riot” fi­asco that helped nudge Ge­orge W. Bush into the White House and six years af­ter Pres­i­dent Barack Obama shamed Mi­ami for long polling-place lines that kept vot­ers wait­ing past 10 p.m., the county car­ried out a widely praised, nearly gl­itch-free elec­tion.

Thank Elec­tions Su­per­vi­sor White. She man­aged a brisk, clean, ef­fi­cient op­er­a­tion that was the

envy of the state.

“She’s a rock star,” said Mi­ami lawyer J.C. Planas, a for­mer Repub­li­can state law­maker who has worked on mul­ti­ple Florida re­counts. “Her at­ten­tion to de­tail, her at­ten­tion to ev­ery­thing makes her the best su­per­vi­sor in Florida and the best one we’ve ever had in Mi­ami.”

Part of White’s suc­cess stems from her as­sump­tion that in an elec­tion, any­thing that can go wrong will go wrong.

“She knows that in ev­ery elec­tion you have to ac­count for Mur­phy and an­tic­i­pate curve balls,” Mayor Car­los Gimenez said. “She is a mas­ter of the art of plan­ning.”

White is al­ready think­ing about the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of 2020.

“De­spite her ex­haus­tion, she’s ask­ing how we can im­prove,” Deputy Mayor Alina Hu­dak said. “She is ex­traor­di­nar­ily or­ga­nized and me­thod­i­cal and al­ways plan­ning ahead.”

Less than 48 hours af­ter the Elec­tion Day polls closed, White told the can­vass­ing board she ex­pected a statewide re­count would be or­dered be­cause of thin mar­gins in the races for U.S. sen­a­tor be­tween Rick Scott and Bill Nel­son, Florida gov­er­nor be­tween Ron DeSan­tis and An­drew Gil­lum and agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner be­tween Nikki Fried and Matt Cald­well. That Thurs­day night, Nov. 8, her staff be­gan separat­ing the first page, which con­tained the three races, of 813,087 bal­lots.

“For a four or five-page bal­lot, you’re talk­ing 3.7 mil­lion pieces of pa­per that we had to sort through one by one,” White said. “That was a mon­u­men­tal task in and of it­self.”

When Tal­la­has­see of­fi­cially de­clared a re­count on Satur­day, Mi­ami-Dade was able to be­gin pro­cess­ing the bal­lots and was half­way done with its en­tire ma­chine re­count by Mon­day.

At the same time, Broward was still separat­ing bal­lots and hadn’t even started its re­count.

Broward Su­per­vi­sor of Elec­tions Brenda Snipes, a Demo­crat elected to her post, was un­der fire from Repub­li­cans for her slow pace and ac­cused of try­ing to “steal” the elec­tion, with­out any ev­i­dence of fraud. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump tweeted that “an hon­est vote is no longer pos­si­ble.”

Up in Palm Beach County, Elec­tions Su­per­vi­sor Su­san Bucher, also crit­i­cized by Trump, said it would be im­pos­si­ble to meet re­count dead­lines and men­tioned she was re­sort­ing to prayer. Then her 10-year-old tab­u­lat­ing ma­chines over­heated, stalling the process as she scram­bled to de­ploy me­chan­ics to re­pair them — al­though the man­u­fac­turer said they mal­func­tioned be­cause they were be­ing run im­prop­erly at four times the in­tended vol­ume.

White had put in a rush or­der to rent five high­speed ma­chines from the man­u­fac­turer in Omaha, Ne­braska, just af­ter Elec­tion Day, and they had ar­rived by Mon­day.

Broward and Palm Beach were plagued by de­lays – Broward missed Thurs­day’s ma­chine re­count dead­line by two min­utes while fum­bling with the state’s web­site – but Mi­ami-Dade is ready to cer­tify its re­sults by Satur­day night or Sun­day morn­ing, White said, de­pend­ing on the vol­ume of mail-in sig­na­ture af­fi­davits re­ceived by Satur­day’s 5 p.m. dead­line, which was ex­tended by a judge’s rul­ing on one of many law­suits filed af­ter the elec­tion.

“Voter con­fi­dence is at a high, which is my pri­mary goal al­ways,” White said. “To do im­pact­ful work and fa­cil­i­tate democ­racy makes me and my staff ex­traor­di­nar­ily proud.”

This time around, pro­test­ers car­ry­ing signs and chant­ing in­sults at each other con­verged on Broward head­quar­ters in Lauder­hill while Mi­amiDade was the pic­ture of seren­ity, with only vol­un­teers out front, tak­ing breaks or sell­ing snacks. In 2000, a mob of Repub­li­can op­er­a­tives sent by Roger Stone to dis­rupt Mi­amiDade’s pres­i­den­tial re­count be­tween Ge­orge W. Bush and Al Gore pounded on the glass doors of the room where elec­tions of­fi­cials had re­treated to es­cape them. In the midst of the chaos, Mi­ami-Dade abruptly called off the re­count.

In 2012, long Elec­tion Day lines caused by a long bal­lot drew Obama’s ire, and Mi­ami-Dade was the butt of jokes again.

Gimenez called for re­form. He and Hu­dak con­vened a bi­par­ti­san task force to forge so­lu­tions. The county bought new equip­ment to speed the reg­is­tra­tion, iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and vot­ing process. Vot­ing by mail was pro­moted and early-vot­ing sites were added, up to a high of 28 in 2018.

“Our goal was to make sure it would take no more than one hour to vote in Mi­ami-Dade County,” Gimenez said. “We haven’t had any ma­jor prob­lems since 2012.”

The two ex­cep­tions this time: Mi­ami-Dade ran out of bal­lots dur­ing the Souls to the Polls early vot­ing ini­tia­tive in North Mi­ami, which made it onto na­tional TV dis­cus­sions about voter sup­pres­sion, and about 500 bal­lots were “lost” dur­ing the ma­chine re­count.

Gimenez ap­pointed White su­per­vi­sor in 2015 with a wary eye on the

2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

White, who had been climb­ing through the ranks of the elec­tions depart­ment since 2006, ap­plied the lessons learned in 2012.

“We learned that the length of the bal­lot is such an im­por­tant vari­able so I in­fused math into the op­er­a­tional im­prove­ments we made,” White said. “If I can es­ti­mate how long it will take you to fill out the bal­lot, I can fig­ure out the tech­nol­ogy and staffing needs.”

White’s ex­act­ing ap­proach to lo­gis­tics has im­pressed her col­leagues.

“She knows ev­ery as­pect of the depart­ment,” Hu­dak said. “The av­er­age per­son doesn’t re­al­ize the com­plex­ity of run­ning an elec­tion.”

White over­sees the largest elec­tions op­er­a­tion in Florida and sev­enth-largest in the na­tion. Her of­fice ad­min­is­ters 20 elec­tions per year, serves 1.4 mil­lion reg­is­tered vot­ers and su­per­vises 783 precincts. She man­ages 99 full-time em­ploy­ees, 1,500 tem­po­rary em­ploy­ees, 6,000 poll work­ers and a $30 mil­lion an­nual bud­get.

On Elec­tion Day, Mi­amiDade re­ceived 15,000 mail-in bal­lots, an un­ex­pect­edly high num­ber, but White re­acted quickly.

“We stayed all night Tues­day to go through those 60,000 sheets of pa­per,” she said. “We’ve got a cul­ture of ded­i­ca­tion, of ‘we’re go­ing to get it done and get it done right.’ ”

White was a mem­ber of the can­vass­ing board that presided over the ma­chine and man­ual re­counts, a chal­leng­ing job that re­quires de­ci­pher­ing con­fused vot­ers’ hi­ero­glyph­ics.

“I sat on the can­vass­ing board as a com­mis­sioner, which taught me all about vot­ers’ quirks from the in­side,” Gimenez said. “I know the board does ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to make ev­ery vote count. There are out­liers who will never draw in­side the lines. It’s tough to judge in­tent on over­votes.”

White, 40, is a mother of three who lives in Mi­ami Shores with her “very sup­port­ive” hus­band. She prac­tices yoga to re­lax. A na­tive New Yorker, she grew up in South Florida and grad­u­ated from South Broward High School and Florida In­ter­na­tional Univer­sity with an en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­ence de­gree.

“I thought I’d be a sci­en­tist,” said White, who is not reg­is­tered with a po­lit­i­cal party. “I was re­cruited to work in the county’s en­vi­ron­men­tal re­sources man­age­ment depart­ment as a pub­lic in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer and wound up mov­ing to elec­tions. I have such a great job and a great team and I make sure to tell them how much I ap­pre­ci­ate their hard work.”

Gimenez, for one, does not want that job to change to an elected po­si­tion, de­spite pas­sage of a new state amend­ment re­quir­ing all coun­ties to elect their elec­tions su­per­vi­sors by 2024. The prob­lems in Broward and Palm Beach, where Snipes and Bucher were elected, pro­vide proof that the con­sti­tu­tional change was a mis­take, Gimenez said.

“Un­like Broward and Palm Beach, Ms. White has the full weight of county govern­ment be­hind her,” Gimenez said. “When she needs re­sources, she can tap into the county. For ex­am­ple, we’ve had is­sues with tem­po­rary poll work­ers we couldn’t con­trol. So we de­cided this time to rely on more county em­ploy­ees to be in charge of precincts and early vot­ing.”

Planas noted White’s non­par­ti­san pro­fes­sion­al­ism and trans­parency while Snipes, elected four times as a Demo­crat, in­vited skep­ti­cism from her Repub­li­can an­tag­o­nists. Bucher is an out­spo­ken Demo­crat and Repub­li­cans called for her res­ig­na­tion.

“I am ve­he­mently against elect­ing a su­per­vi­sor,” Planas said. “Po­lit­i­cal hacks are just not go­ing to do a good job. That’s what we risk.”

Mi­ami

Elec­tion work­ers look at com­pleted bal­lots.

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