Florida’s Messy Democracy

Republican legislation and a long ballot led to shamefully long lines in the Sunshine State, reports Winston Ross.

Alan Diaz

Curled up on a couch Wednesday night just inside the open doors of the Cuba Ocho Art and Research Center in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana are Roberto Ramos, and his wife, Yeney Farinas-Ramos. They own this 5,700-square foot gallery and cultural center and they are exhausted, enjoying their first real moment since a chaotic Election Day. They began to relax, drink a little red wine, and reflect on how embarrassed they are to be residents of Florida right about now.

Tuesday was supposed to mark the first time Ramos had ever cast a ballot as an American citizen, even though he has been in the United States for 20 years and eligible to do so for 12. He didn’t vote before because he didn’t believe in it, he says in Spanish, because in his country—the one he fled in 1992 in a weathered skiff with two friends and 13 antique Cuban paintings—voting was a joke and a waste of time.

But Farinas-Ramos talked her husband into giving American democracy a chance. In this country, your vote counts, she convinced him. Here, you get to choose who runs the government. So Ramos took time out of a very busy day, marched down to his precinct, and got in line.

That line wasn't anywhere near as bad as it was in some places. Voters across Miami-Dade county and across the state had been standing in lines for hours at a time for the better part of two weeks, thanks to two key factors: the Republican Legislature's passage this year of a bill that cut the number of days Floridians could vote early in this year's election from 14 to eight, and a ballot that was 10 pages long.

Late Saturday, Florida Democrats sued to force several county elections offices to extend early voting, and the compromise reached only made the situation more confusing, the lines longer.

Voters who missed out on the chance to cast early votes could come to the election supervisors’ offices, pick up an absentee ballot, fill it out on the spot, and turn it in, right there. So people showed up to do just that on Sunday and Monday, all over the state, only to find themselves waiting in lines for four to eight hours. Some didn’t get to vote until 2 a.m.

All that chaos was supposed to mean things went more smoothly on election day, but it didn’t. The bulging ballots and overwhelmed precincts led to more long lines, and more marathon wait times.

Ramos’s wait in Little Havana was an hour and a half, so he considered himself lucky. When he got into the polling booth, he pretended to be bewildered about whom to choose, and demanded the precinct worker tell him. She refused, he said, but then smiled, and pointed at her forearm, at her brown skin. Not the white guy.

Ramos got the point. But he didn’t get to vote. The registration card mailed to him instructed him to cast his ballot at the precinct close to Cuba Ocho, not the one near his home in Pasa Robles, where he was actually supposed to vote, he said. After standing in line all that time, he needed to get back to his business.

This country was supposed to be different.

“It’s a mess,” Farinas-Ramos said. “I came to this country because we wanted to be in charge of who we elect. This is embarrassing.”

And it's not over, either. By Thursday morning, elections officials in Miami-Dade were still counting ballots and making excuses. And even after the absentee ballots had been fully tabulated, Miami-Dade county still doesn’t expect to have things wrapped up until Friday.

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Meanwhile, the rest of the country has moved on. Obama was declared the winner Tuesday night and Florida was declared a laughingstock, just like it was in the hanging chad days of 2000. Newspapers and talk-show hosts across America are mocking the Sunshine State mercilessly.

And Floridians, especially those who escaped countries whose own approach to citizen participation is laughable, do not find this funny.

"It is an outrage," said Max Castro, puffing on a cigar in a shop down the street from Cuba Ocho. On the end table next to him sat a copy of El Nuevo Herald, with the headline “Obama Reelecto,” and below that, “La Florida se inclina por el Presidente.”

Too close to call.

"Republicans tried to make it hard for people of color, people who have to work and people who are Democrats," Castro said. "But on a scale of things I find outrageous in this state, and this legislature, it's just another outrage."

It's not just Democrats who are angry. Miami attorney Eric Padron put on his finest suit Tuesday and headed to the polls as the self-described "die-hard Republican" does every election. The son of Cuban exiles arrived at 6:30 a.m., he said, thinking he'd have the jump. He stood in line for four hours. And he blames Republicans, squarely, for the mess in Florida.

"Republicans have to realize you cannot win elections if you try to reduce the number of early voting days and curtail the opportunities of people to vote," he said. "If you want to win, be the majority party. Your message, your ideology, your politics have to appeal to that 51 percent. You can do all the shenanigans you want, but what does it gain you? Nothing. It makes you a laughingstock."

The upside to Florida's election madness, believes Miami Democrat and Cuban-American Lourdes Diaz, is that these attempts at voter suppression actually fired up Obama’s base, especially among Latinos from countries that have seen their rights to participate in government trampled. Part of the reason the lines were so long here, every step of the way, is because these precincts were caught flat-footed by overwhelming turnout—turnout inspired by all the efforts to quell it.

"Oh, you don't want us to vote?" Diaz said. "We're going to show you. We're Latinos. We lost our country. It's not going to happen again."