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Miami Herald

Police to aid in Nov. 5 election
By Andrea Robinson
October 13, 2002

Faced with a disastrous mix of inexperienced poll workers, delayed precinct openings and outraged voters at last month's primary, county officials called their own cavalry -- the Miami-Dade Police Department -- to restore order by the Nov. 5 general election.

Police Director Carlos Alvarez and his staff now find themselves in a baptism by fire, absorbing unfamiliar procedures and wading through a process completely new to them.

But, as Alvarez said, We don't have a choice. We were given an assignment, and we'll make it work.''

Some civil-liberties groups and community organizers are unhappy, but county leaders insist the police department's record of successfully handling crises makes it the right agency for the job.

''We have to put this in place, because we have such a short time frame,'' said County Manager Steve Shiver, the person who named Alvarez as project manager.

In that role, Alvarez is in charge of putting together the election -- from logistics and transportation to staffing and training.

What has developed is a ''cooperative'' checks-and-balances system in which Alvarez and the department's top-level staff meet daily in dozens of meetings with leaders of several Miami-Dade County agencies. They identify and pick apart problems that cropped up during the Sept. 10 primary, then look for workable solutions that must be in place in three weeks.

Inspector General Chris Mazzella recommended Alvarez because of his ''logistical expertise'' and experience in crisis management. In 1994, Alvarez was project manager for the Summit of the Americas, and he was in charge of security during the 1987 visit by Pope John Paul II. He has played a similar role with other assorted national events such as the Super Bowl and New Year's 2000.

Mazzella's report noted that given the short time frame, someone with similar coordination skills was necessary to make sure poll-worker training is adequate, communication lines are set up and appropriate staff is in place at the county's 553 polling places to ensure a good election.

Coordination Need

''You have to look at it as another event that has to be carefully coordinated,'' Mazzella said last week.

Alvarez said that since Sept. 21, his entire command staff -- three assistant directors and seven division chiefs -- and a number of their subordinates have worked alongside other governmental agencies to put all of the pieces in place for this Big Event.

''We're not experts in elections, but we're good at executing a plan,'' Alvarez said. ``We have a good track record, and we've never failed. We are going to make sure that people in Dade County are able to vote.''

What that means is identifying personnel shortages, tackling minute details such as ensuring precincts have enough tables and chairs and making sure clerks can enter private buildings that double as precincts. They also are helping the county's personnel department with coordinating hundreds of training sessions for an estimated 10,750 poll workers and technicians.

''We're doing all the what-ifs. Every day, we're learning something,'' department spokeswoman Nelda Fonticiella said.

Recruitment Jam

For example, when the elections department's recruitment phone lines jammed with callers, the police department implemented its reverse 911 system to place calls. It then grabbed additional bodies from other county offices to answer telephones.

The biggest use of department staff will occur around Nov. 4, when hundreds of officers will escort trucks hauling the 7,200 iVotronic voting machines to 553 polling places. An officer will be stationed outside those buildings until the next morning, when a precinct clerk opens up.

They also will return the computers to storage warehouses when tabulation is completed.

The plan is viewed with skepticism by some civil-liberties and national voter-rights organizations and local activists, who say the idea of uniformed police at polling places brings back memories of the 1950s and '60s, when blacks fought for the right to vote.

''I hope they won't have uniform officers at the polls or other things that will be intimidating to voters,'' especially minorities, said Rashad Robinson, director of the Washington-based Center for Voting and Democracy.

Remains To Be Seen

''The idea [the police department is] coming in . . . and can do it well remains to be seen,'' Robinson said. ``The police can mess it up just as well as anyone.''

Local activist Max Rameau, a frequent police critic, said he was dumbfounded by the idea.

''Police don't do elections. That's what you have an elections department for,'' he said. Guarding property is one thing, playing a role in the election is another.''

Police officials are quick to point to state law, which forbids police officers from entering a polling place unless they are there to vote. Alvarez said his officers will not violate that rule.

''This is not a police function. You won't see us working around the polling places,'' he said. We just want this to go OK.''

Also off limits, he said, are the ballot creation and counting duties that the Election Department is constitutionally bound to conduct.

Some Grumbling

But Alvarez's attention to election details has caused grumbling from some of his officers, who say the police director has overcommitted department manpower to the project in planning and for Election Day.

''It's upsetting to a lot of us when we have so many other things going on. We originally thought security, coordination and training would be it,'' an officer told The Herald. The man declined to give his name for fear of retribution. I've never seen this anywhere else. If this happened in another country, we'd accuse them of exerting undue influence.''

John Rivera, president of the Police Benevolent Association, said he has heard complaints from some union members who have been ''inconvenienced'' by the adjustment.

''I have heard people say this is ridiculous. It goes to show how screwed up our government is,'' said Rivera, who expressed his own reservations. I disagree we should be doing this, but we're the best qualified to handle the job.''

Even Robinson, while skeptical about such use of police resources, said the idea has pluses given Florida's recent voting history.

''The idea of using government personnel who have specialized skill in crisis management might help prevent small problems from being bigger ones,'' he said. People who have skills in coordinating large-scale events could move this forward.''

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