Florida Voters Get Up Before Dawn — And Wait — to Vote Early

October 20, 2020by Aaron Leibowitz and David Smiley, Miami Herald
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), center, joins in on the dancing outside the Kendall voting station. (Brittny Mejia/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

MIAMI — A soggy South Florida day didn’t dampen voter enthusiasm Monday as people arrived at voting centers before dawn — in some cases lining up around the block — to take advantage of the start of early voting in Florida.

From Miami to St. Petersburg, people began posting pictures on social media of lines growing around early voting centers even before polls opened at 7 a.m. In stormy South Florida, voters supporting either President Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden stood in line wearing ponchos — and masks — and holding umbrellas.

More than 2.5 million Floridians have already voted by mail. But with Trump casting aspersions about the legitimacy of mail voting, Monday morning offered the first opportunity to vote in person for those voters who don’t want to cast a mail ballot.

“I wanted to make sure that it’s legit and that it counts,” said Yensys Martinez, who voted for Trump about 11 a.m. at the JFK Library in Hialeah.

Just before midday, the parking lot at the Northwest Miami-Dade library was jam-packed and a line of more than 80 voters _ many sporting pro-Trump campaign paraphernalia _ wrapped around much of the building. Lines at other locations across Miami-Dade County were as long as 45 minutes throughout the morning, according to the Miami-Dade elections website.

In Broward County, some voters reported even longer wait times. Elizabeth Nazarett, a Miramar resident who voted at the city’s library Monday, said she arrived about 10:30 a.m. and waited almost three hours to vote. About two hours into the wait, a man behind her in line collapsed and was brought inside to receive medical attention.

“The poor man was on the ground,” said Nazarett, noting that she has voted at the library in the past but never had to wait so long.

Broward elections spokesman Steve Vancore said the man was hurt but didn’t need to go to the hospital. He added that the Miramar site’s polling director didn’t report wait times longer than an hour, despite Nazarett’s account.

Broward also experienced minor issues Monday morning with the machines that print ballots, Vancore said. Three machines at three separate sites “were not fully operational” and had to be operated manually, slowing down the process. Vancore said other machines at the sites were working, and technicians responded quickly to repair the non-working ones within an hour.

“There are these hiccups that are expected,” Vancore said. “If that’s the problem you have on Election Day, that’s a really good problem.”

Monday was the start of 14 consecutive days of in-person early voting from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, ending Sunday, Nov. 1. In Monroe County, where early voting also began Monday, the hours and days are slightly different: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day until Saturday, Oct. 31.

Some Florida counties won’t start early voting until Oct. 24. But in many metro areas across the state, Floridians got up early Monday to wait in socially distanced lines to cast their ballots.

At the North Shore Branch Library in Miami Beach _ where the Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections reported waits of about 45 minutes throughout the morning _ more than 60 people were already in line to vote at about 7:30 a.m. Silvia Rojas, 62, said she waited in line for about an hour to vote for Biden after arriving at the North Beach site shortly before it opened at 7 a.m.

“I’m glad that there is such a long line,” said Rojas, a Democrat who said she doesn’t live close by but made the drive because she expected, at worst, a short wait. “Our democracy is at stake.”

A few markers on the ground outside the library instructed people to stand six feet apart, but there were far more voters than markers on the windy, rainy morning. Most wore masks and stood a few feet apart as they waited to enter.

Kevin Arrow, a 58-year-old Democrat, said he was voting for Biden and for Democrats down the ticket. He said he’s always voted in person, and concerns about the vote-by-mail process convinced him to do so again despite the threat of COVID-19.

“I feel like this community is smart and responsible,” he said.

But the process wasn’t entirely smooth across South Florida. At Coral Ridge Mall in Fort Lauderdale, police were called after a dispute between election workers and a few voters who weren’t wearing masks. The voters eventually were allowed to cast their ballots without masks on.

Masks are required, at least in theory, to enter precincts in Miami-Dade and Broward counties _ though Miami-Dade officials have said they will give voters a mask if they don’t have one, or else let them fill out their ballot outside.

More than 3 million people will likely vote early and in person this year in Florida before Election Day on Nov. 3. At the North Dade Regional Library in Miami Gardens early Monday, more than 100 voters waited, amid gusty weather and puddles, in a line that extended out to Northwest 183rd Street. Campaign workers pitched their candidates and waved political signs at those waiting to vote.

Sandra Lively, a 64-year-old retired certified nurse’s assistant, said through a red-and-white-striped mask that she wanted to vote in person and as early as possible to make sure her vote is counted. Lively, a resident of Miami Gardens, the largest majority Black city in Florida, said she’s been unhappy with Trump and will vote for Biden in part because she thinks he’ll do a better job responding to the pandemic.

“He’s more concerned with that than Trump,” she said. “Trump acts like he doesn’t care about it.”

Outside the voting site at the Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections headquarters, voters waited out a downpour to cast their ballots.

By 1 p.m., 20,000 voters had cast a ballot on Monday, according to Suzy Trutie, the deputy supervisor of elections. Four years ago, 35,135 voters cast a ballot in Miami-Dade County on the first day of early voting, she said.

“We expected a big turnout,” Trutie said Monday. “As long as the lines keep moving and flowing, that’s how we measure the success of the early voting process.”

In Broward County _ the most left-leaning county in Florida _ voters started lining up at early voting sites from Weston near the Everglades to Coconut Creek and Fort Lauderdale before doors opened. According to the Broward Supervisor of Elections website, over 20,000 people had voted there by 5 p.m.

Much like in the August primary, those who showed up to vote in person Monday morning took precautions against COVID-19 transmission and found voting centers doing the same, even as experts say in-person voting is likely to be a relatively low-risk activity.

Every early voting site is equipped with a drop box where voters can deposit their mail ballots. In Miami-Dade, the boxes will be open during early voting hours. In Broward, they’ll be open around the clock.

The start of in-person voting comes as the pandemic has prompted Americans to vote by mail in record numbers. Democrats, especially, have leaned on the method: As of Sunday, more than 2.5 million people had voted by mail in Florida. Democrats had cast 1.2 million of those mail ballots, compared to 754,000 Republicans.

But Election Day turnout will likely favor Republicans, most of whom are likely to vote in person rather than by mail.

In Hialeah, Maria Julia Perez, 63, said she voted in-person “for the security of knowing my vote will count.” She voted wearing a hat, shirt and mask with Trump’s name. She said the lines at the library were longer than she remembered in the past.

But the line moved quickly, with voters waiting 15 to 20 minutes to enter the library and cast their ballots. A pair of Hialeah police officers walked up and down the line, occasionally telling people to stand at a distance. An officer told the Miami Herald he was there only to ensure voters were following COVID-19 safety precautions outside.

Republicans said in-person voting is the start of a GOP push.

“We are not taking our foot off the gas and I expect a surge to the finish!” Republican Party of Florida Chairman Joe Gruters said in a statement. “We are going to ride this strong red wave all the way to Election Day to ensure that Republicans up and down the ticket are elected.”

Democrats also viewed the turnout on the first day of early voting as favorable to them.

“Your most enthusiastic folks are people lining up today,” said Josh Mendelsohn, the CEO of Democratic tech firm Hawkfish. “I would expect that to continue.”

___

Miami Herald staff photographer Matias Ocner contributed to this report.

___

(c)2020 Miami Herald

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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