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    Criticized after first test, supervisor remains upbeat

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 12, 2002

    FORT LAUDERDALE -- With the polls long closed and thousands of votes still uncounted, Broward Supervisor of Elections Miriam Oliphant sounded pleased with her performance early Wednesday.

    "Considering what happened, I think it was a good day," Oliphant said about 1 a.m. inside the dingy warehouse where workers still were laboring to count votes and even locate results from some precincts.

    Oliphant, who has faced the storm over Tuesday's election with a smile on her face, seemed disconnected from the mounting criticism from Republicans and fellow Democrats. She told reporters that she gave herself a "B" grade for Tuesday's work.

    "I am doing my job with the resources that I have," she said.

    Polling places opened late and closed early. Machines weren't working. Some precinct workers were poorly trained. Voters were given the wrong ballots.

    Oliphant, a first-time supervisor elected two years ago, deflected blame for Tuesday's problems to the company that sold the voting machines, the Legislature for forcing the change of hundreds of polling locations by drawing new political maps, and poll workers who failed to show up.

    But later Wednesday, county and state officials contended she broke her campaign promise that no vote would go uncounted. Even supporters who describe her as one of the most personable and approachable politicians say she was in over her head from the beginning.

    "She's lost the trust," said a frustrated Rep. Ron Greenstein, D-Coconut Creek.

    In the 2000 presidential election, Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections Theresa LePore and her butterfly ballot endured the brunt of the criticism aimed at county elections supervisors.

    This year, it's Oliphant.

    Staunch supporters, including the local NAACP, joined others in criticism. Secretary of State Jim Smith hinted she should be removed from office.

    But Oliphant, 48, who dodged reporters and photographers for much of election day, remained confident and optimistic Wednesday.

    "I was elected by 70 percent of Broward County," she said, "and I have their approval."

    Oliphant, who earns more than $100,000 a year, was elected as elections supervisor in 2000. The Fort Lauderdale native had no part in the presidential election debacle and pledged change after the longtime supervisor retired.

    "This is a catastrophe of biblical proportions," David Brown, a political consultant who ran against her in 2000, said Wednesday. "It clearly lies at the doorstep of supervisor of elections."

    Oliphant, who had been supervisor of the witness management program in the Public Defender's Office, was appointed to the School Board in 1991 by the late Gov. Lawton Chiles. She became the only African-American on the board and was then elected and re-elected.

    On the School Board, Oliphant pushed the school district to renovate and improve schools in minority communities. She has pointed to the rebuilding of historically black Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale as her biggest achievement.

    Weeks before Tuesday's election, Oliphant was criticized for confusion over recruiting poll workers, selecting polling places and mailing duplicate voting cards. She responded by calling elected officials liars and threatening to make cities find their own polling places and staff.

    "I'm not an apologist for her," said state Rep. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. "But for her first election, there were going to be some problems."

    In the past two days, Oliphant has made an effort to be cheerful even when there seemed to be little to be cheerful about.

    "I'm not going to give up for the voters," she said. "The voters have confidence in me."

    -- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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