Florida is one of 13 states with a closed primary. That means in order to take part in the March 15 primary one must be registered either as a Democrat or a Republican.
We spoke with Christina White who is running the Miami-Dade County elections office through this month's primary before being named the official supervisor of the office later in May. She spoke about some of the changes voters can expect to find, that should make the process much smoother.
What do you imagine is going to happen come March 15 and there are people who want to vote and want to challenge the closed primary?
Invariably that will happen during early voting and on Election Day. It does tend to be in primary elections because not everybody does understand the concept of a closed primary. So one of our most important messages leading up to the election is that our voters check what party they're registered as on our website. You just put in a few simple pieces of information about yourself. It will show you or your registration status as well as your party.
There have been complaints in the past in Miami-Dade. In 2012 there were reports of long lines and some people complained that they would show up at the polls and some of the machines weren't working. What can you say about how past issues have been resolved?
We have better distributed our voting population. That's probably going to be one of the biggest things that we've done that will have an impact that voters will see when they go out in the polls. So we did this through the process called re-precincting. And what that basically means is that we looked at the number of people that were assigned to our various polling locations and made a determination if that polling location can accommodate the number of voters that are there and, if not, we redistributed them. So in the end we added 46 polling locations to better distribute the number of people that are turning out. In addition to that, we now have an electronic check-in system—very different from 2012. In 2012 it was a paper-based system where we had to look up your name alphabetically; you had to go into the line that was specific to your last name. That has all been replaced by an electronic system where we take your driver's license or Florida I.D., we swipe it and your voter record comes up very quickly. It doesn't matter which one you go to. And we'll be able to process you much quicker than in the past so, I think those two things are going to have a dramatic difference on lines. And for this election in the primary in terms of early voting, we have gone back to the full 14 days. In 2012 it was only eight days, so it was more people coming to 20 sites within a condensed period of time. For this election we've expanded to the 14 days again which is the maximum allowed by law. In the presidential election, not for this one, but in the presidential election we're actually adding 10 additional sites, so that should make it even more convenient for early voters.
So let's come back to this idea of the locations of the voting locations — you talk about increasing the number. I'm wondering do you know where the greatest challenges, the greatest concern of regions within your district that need more locations and have those things been addressed?
The largest number of sites that we added are down south, because the population has just shifted down south, there has been growth down south, so we added many more sites down there as opposed to the rest of the county. So the impact I could say would be a little larger on those voters that live down there regardless of where you live. I encourage that you go online or you call 3-1-1 and confirm your voting location before you head out. We did send voter information cards out to all of our voters in August of 2015 saying that changes have occurred. This may have impacted where you go vote. In addition to that, just this past month, if you were impacted by a change you were sent out a reminder notice that says that your precinct has changed. But let's say you didn't see either one of those pieces of mail, we want to make sure that everyone's aware, because for us the worst thing that can happen is that you show up to your old polling location on Election Day and you're now at that point being told that you have to go somewhere else, despite our efforts. So the best thing to do is to go online.
The new check-in system — has this been fully tested or is it a system that's been used somewhere else so we know its effectiveness?
It is a system that we've been using in early voting since 2006. It was just brought to the 600 polling locations that we have in 2014. So I'm happy to say that we have used them for the gubernatorial election cycle. This will be the first time that we're using it in the presidential election cycle. So the system is tried, it's true, we know it works and it certainly will speed up the voting process. It may be new to some voters who didn't vote back in 2014. But the department feels very well prepared.
People have already started early voting. Do you have any idea, any picture of Miami Dade residents and how many participate in early voting?
Election turnout varies from one election to the next and it has to do with what's on the ballot and the campaigners and how energized they're getting. So in this particular election the last one that is most comparable is going to be the 2008 presidential preference primary because at that time there was a non-incumbent president as well as this election. So while supervisors of elections across the state are always leery about giving turnout statistics because you're never right, we're planning for about a 40 percent voter turnout. In Miami-Dade the trend is about 50 percent of voters who will vote will vote early between early voting and by absentee ballot. And so far I can tell you that we have around 20,000 absentee ballots that have already come to the department and early voting started on Feb. 29.
What happens if somebody turns in a ballot and their candidate is no longer running?
Well suspending your campaign is very different from officially withdrawing from the campaign. To my knowledge none of the candidates have yet to officially withdraw; they've all suspended. So what that means is at this time that those votes for those candidates are still valid. If they officially withdraw they will notify the state, the state will notify the Elections Department, and then we will begin with our proper notification to our voters that a particular candidate has withdrawn. But at this point if somebody votes for one of those candidates that have suspended, it is a valid vote.
Can they come back and say, well wait a minute my candidate dropped out. Even if they're still listed, can they come back and vote again?
No, unfortunately once you've cast your ballot you have been considered voting and you will be restricted from voting again.
When you took over this position what were some of the biggest challenges that you saw right away that you wanted to tackle considering that this is a job that could be very thankless and if anything goes wrong you may be in the national spotlight?
I think that our voters have always felt that this department has conducted elections transparently and accurately. My goal in this position is to restore voter convenience, and I think that we have made some amazing advancements in the last couple months and years quite frankly to be ready for this presidential election cycle. And I think between the conveniences of absentee voting, what we've done with the early voting and on Election Day, I think voters will see a big difference from 2012 and will feel more confident in the convenience and I look forward to bringing that.
Considering your position in the biggest district in Florida in one of the most important states in the election, what do you think about the fact that sometimes Florida is ridiculed in late night shows for election problems, which all stem back to the 2000 election?
I do not think it's fair. I would invite anybody to come into the elections department, take a tour, or learn a little more about what we do and how we do it and why what we do takes time. Because I know that when I put results online for the world to see that they're accurate and they have been quality assured and that takes time. I don't think that Miami-Dade will ever not be in the news because Florida is a true swing state and three-quarters of the counties in the state of Florida can be called. But the state can't be called until Miami-Dade is called because of our population and the fact that our voter registration is pretty even as well. So they need to know what's going on in Miami-Dade. So I can tell you that takes time and tune in to our Web site and as soon as we have the results verified we'll put them on. But I think that we—all the supervisors of elections in the state of Florida—take great pride in what we do.