Photos Show Scores of Uncounted Ballots in Opa-locka Mail Center

Update: The Miami Herald reports that 266 ballots from the Opa-locka mail facility arrived at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department on Saturday morning. It's unclear when the ballots were initially postmarked. Per state law, the ballots will not count toward the election unless they are from military members or people living overseas. On Monday, a lawyer for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's re-election campaign sued Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, alleging the state is disenfranchising voters by not accepting mail-in ballots received after Election Day.

Marc Elias, an attorney representing Nelson and the Democratic National Committee, filed the lawsuit Monday morning in federal court.

"No Floridian should have their rightful vote denied because of mail/post office delays," Elias said on Twitter. "We are suing to protect these ballots."

According to the lawsuit, nearly 3.5 million Florida voters requested to vote by mail, but as of Thursday — two days after the general election — "a staggering 874,818 of those VBM ballots has not yet been counted as returned."

Miami-Dade County announced today it has finished counting votes for the 2018 election.

But photos obtained by New Times show scores of mail-in ballots sitting inside an Opa-locka mail distribution center — the same center that was evacuated last month after alleged mail bomber Cesar Sayoc's packages passed through the facility.

Several local activists demonstrated outside both the mail facility and at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department to try to draw attention to the ballots. Two sources who spoke with New Times allege hundreds of ballots might still be inside, but it’s still unclear when those ballots may have been mailed in the first place.

Suzy Trutie, a spokesperson for the Elections Department, told New Times her office was aware of the ballots but confirmed nothing else about them. She said that, per state law, any ballots not delivered to the Miami-Dade Elections Department by 7 p.m. Election Day could not be counted toward the 2018 total.

"We do our best to educate voters that, if you’re voting vote-by-mail, then your ballot had to be at the Elections Department by Tuesday, November 6," she said. "Not everybody mailed back in time."

Asked whether the ballots had been sitting inside the Opa-locka center undelivered on Election Day — or when the place was evacuated — Trutie referred questions to the United States Postal Service. (After this story was initially published, Trutie added that the Elections Department made daily post office visits this election season to pick up ballots three times on Election Day.)

Ty Russell, a reporter with CBS Miami, tweeted minutes ago that he'd spoken with USPS and that it was not aware of any ballots being mishandled.
After this story was initially published, the USPS confirmed to the Miami Herald that the agency is still investigating the way the ballots were handled. U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson's office also told the Herald that she spoke to the USPS and that the agency told her the ballots had been postmarked after Election Day and were thus ineligible. State law does, however, provide a ten-day extension for overseas voters and members of the military.

But sources who spoke with New Times privately worried that ballots might have been sitting in the mailroom for days or weeks before Election Day. Sources expressed frustration that more wasn't done to collect outstanding ballots before the 7 p.m. deadline. One source who claimed to have reported the issues to the Elections Department said that the Opa-locka distribution center was understaffed and that there were not enough employees to handle the flood of ballots that had come in just before the election.

The day after the election, a Twitter user posted a clip purporting to show a USPS worker in Miami explaining what was going on. The woman said ballots were sitting on the floor hours after the delivery deadline had passed.
Though there is still no direct evidence that the post office failed to deliver valid votes, such an issue has occurred in the past in other cities. Earlier this year, the USPS delivered nearly 2,000 pieces of late first-class mail to the New York City Board of Elections — including 533 valid ballots that should have counted in the November 2017 election, according to the public radio station WNYC.

The margins in Florida's 2018 midterm races, meanwhile, are razor-thin: Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott currently lead their Democratic opponents, Andrew Gillum and Bill Nelson, by less than one-half percentage point each. Scott seems particularly nervous about a looming recount in his race and has sued the Broward and Palm Beach County Supervisors of Election in what appears to be an attempt to slow or stop the ballot-counting process. Scott, without a shred of evidence, alleges Broward is committing "election fraud" and "stealing" the race for the Democrats, but the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which answers to Scott, says no formal allegation of fraud has been filed.

The race for agriculture commissioner is also headed to a recount. Progressive Democrat Nikki Fried leads Republican Matt Caldwell by just a few thousand votes.
Miami-Dade County is a left-leaning county but does contain pockets of hard-right voters. It's quite possible a few hundred extra ballots from Dade could have changed the margins in the election; however, at the moment, it's unclear how many might have been left undelivered by postal workers — or if ballots just truly did not arrive by mail in time. The Miami-Dade Elections Department, however, says it is still "continuing to receive ballots" by mail. Those ballots, the department says, won't be counted.

The Opa-locka debacle might explain why one Miami-Dade voter’s ballot never made it to the elections office. Kirk Nielsen, a former New Times writer who lives just west of Coral Gables, says he mailed his ballot at a University of Miami post office October 29 but learned after Election Day it hadn’t been received.

“Of course I wonder if my ballot is sitting in the Opa-locka mail facility, along with many others,” he says. “I hope there’s an investigation.”

Having voted by mail in several prior elections, Nielsen says he knew how to check the Miami-Dade elections website to see when his ballot arrived. When he checked on Tuesday afternoon, however, the site informed him that his ballot hadn't been received yet. Nielsen briefly considered driving to his polling place to fill out a provisional ballot but ultimately assured himself it was probably just a matter of the website not being updated.

When he called the elections office the next day, however, a representative told him his ballot wasn’t counted and had never even arrived.

“I was disappointed there wasn’t more concern, like, ‘Oh, well, we better try to go find your ballot,” he says.

On Friday, Nielsen still had no idea what happened to his mail-in ballot.

“There are bigger questions,” he says. “It’s not really about how I feel, but it’s like, where is my ballot?”

Staff writer Jessica Lipscomb contributed to this story.

Update: This story has been amended to reflect that Kirk Nielsen lives west of Coral Gables, not within city limits.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.