Once election laughingstock, Miami has cleaned up its act
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.”
Election workers look at completed ballots.