Hundreds of voters arrived at the Miami-Dade Elections Headquarters on Sunday after learning they would get another opportunity to request, fill out, and submit last-minute absentee ballots.
MIAMI, Florida (CBS4) - Chaos and confusion clouded the final Sunday before Election Day in Miami-Dade County.
Since early voting was cut from 14 days to 8 days in Florida for this election, voters arrived at the Miami-Dade Elections Headquarters early Sunday after learning they would get another opportunity to request, fill out, and submit last-minute absentee ballots.
Excited voters quickly turned into angry protesters when the doors of the elections office in Doral were suddenly locked, just one hour after opening.
Dozens of people chanted "Let the people vote."
CBS4 news partner the Miami Herald first broke the news on Twitter.
"If you let one person in this line in to vote, then you gotta let everybody in," voter Dennis Valdes said. "You said 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. That means all bets are off."
"It's just pure, sheer incompetence," voter Simon Rose said. "Absolute incompetence. These people have no business running our election process."
The line was supposed be open from 1pm to 5pm. Just after 2 o'clock, elections officials told voters their staff and equipment just could not keep up with the turnout.
One voter said she was told the printer malfunctioned.
"They're going to lock the doors because they're printer broke," asked voter Diana who id not want to give her last name. "How can your printer break for the election?"
Miami-Dade Deputy Supervisor of Elections Christina White said there were no malfunctions that she knew of. She did say they brought in another printer to meet the demand for absentee ballots.
"We did not expect this size crowd," White said.
After the initial announcement, the elections office reversed course just an hour later.
"We are all going to vote today. We're going to open up, I'm going to get some tickets," an elections office employee said to a roar of cheers.
"They just came out here and told us they're going to reopen in five minutes," voter Laura Pilgrim said. "I'm excited, I want to vote!"
White said offering the absentee ballots on Sunday was a courtesy to voters, not a move required by law.
"We did hit some operational limitations, so we had to close our doors," White said. "But we're very happy to be able to open them again and be able to provide this service to our voters."
Sources tell CBS 4 News that's only part of the story.
Deputy Mayor Alina Hudak confirmed exclusively to CBS4 News she signed off on Sunday's impromptu voting.
Hudak said election officials made the recommendation to open for four hours on Sunday to provide and accept absentee ballots. Hudak said she didn't think this was a big deal because in Miami-Dade anyone can request and be issued an absentee ballot right up until 7 pm on Election Day.
Hudak said since there were going to be people at election headquarters anyway, and it wasn't going to involve a major expense, she approved the idea of Sunday voting.
Since she didn't think this was a change to the system, Hudak said she didn't inform Mayor Carlos Gimenez of her decision.
Hudak said she began to realize there may be a problem when the elections department sent out the press release Sunday morning making it appear this was a major change and encouraging people to come to the Doral headquarters to to vote. Hudak never saw the press release in advance and didn't even know they would be sending one out.
Once the release went out everything blew up. Calls started coming in from the media, from the various campaigns.
When Gimenez started getting calls about it, he had no idea what was happening. Some voters also questioned why there was only one voting site open in an area dominated by Republicans.
By the time Gimenez spoke to election officials the line was already 180 people deep.
Gimenez called the elections office asked the staff there to shut it down. They did and told those in line to go home. National news outlets picked up the story.
Gimenez ultimately decided to allow the voting to continue.
"We don't want to disenfranchise anybody," White said. "That's what we were hearing out here. We apologize and we're going to make it happen."
A very emotional Hudak, Miami-Dade's first female county manager, told CBS4's Jim DeFede the mayor was completely blindsided by all of this.
"I apologized to the mayor. I should have told him. I made a bad call."
Voters can still request an absentee ballot and turn it in at the Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Office in Doral between 8 am and 5 pm Monday.
Absentee ballots can also be dropped of at the Stephen P. Clark Center in Downtown Miami.
Voters have until 7pm on Election Day to turn in absentee ballots.