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Add 'south' to Florida election punchlines

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 12, 2002


You can hear the Florida jokes on Letterman and Leno already.

Another blown election.

Another example of how we just don't know how to follow the rules.

The nighttime TV guys wave a broad brush. They say Florida. They mean Miami. Don't lump the semi-sane rest of us in with those goofs in Miami-Dade and Broward counties who can't vote straight.

You wonder. Has some strange additive been slipped into Biscayne Bay, the air in Hollywood or the cafe con leche on Calle Ocho?

How come South Florida is incapable of being like the rest of the state and properly conducting an election?

And how could they do it twice?

Last time, the odds were enormous. A presidential election was at stake. But the crisis, when you got down to the details, was small. The vote was close, and voters made mistakes reading ballots.

This time, the Democratic gubernatorial primary is at stake. Janet Reno's voters in particular have not been fully counted.

The prize may be smaller, but in South Florida, what happened amounted to "a massive breakdown in the system," said Dario Moreno, a South Florida political scientist.

Moreno, who runs the Metropolitan Center, a political think tank at Florida International University, blamed everything on two people -- David Leahy and Miriam Oliphant, the elections supervisors in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, respectively.

Moreno said the failure occurred on three levels: failure to open polling places on time, to get enough trained workers and to get the votes counted in a timely way. In other words, the failure was cosmic.

Some poll workers simply failed to show. They handed out Republican ballots to Democrats, or vice versa. Some voter rolls were missing. Some machines were not turned on. Some workers opened up late or refused to stay the extra two hours ordered by the governor. They had trouble getting cartridges that carried each machine's tally to the proper location, so the figures could be sent to election headquarters.

These problems really eat away at public trust, Moreno said. People who showed up at their polling place and were told to come back later weren't likely to return. And their regard for the system was likely to decline.

The state changed some laws and spent $32-million on equipment and training to make this election error-free. The sense of deflation, disappointment and frustration now were palpable.

"It's shameful,' said Gov. Bush as the results came in.

In Tampa, where the voting went smoothly, Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Pam Iorio said that what happened in South Florida rubs off on the rest of the state.

"Because other counties can't pull it off administratively, we continue to have a black eye nationally. That's not right. I'm a Floridian. I care about the image of the entire state."

David Leahy, the Miami-Dade supervisor, is now under orders to issue a report by today on how to make the next election -- the gubernatorial race in November -- "problem free."

Moreno, the professor, doubts that is possible. They need more money, more people, but mostly, "They have to change attitudes," he said. How hard could that be?

Is voting not the most precious expression of being an American?

Or have people in South Florida somehow turned voting into a cheap joke, too?

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or at 813.226.3402.

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