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    His years of experience unable to prevent fiasco

    By BRYAN GILMER and DAVID ADAMS
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 12, 2002

    MIAMI -- David Leahy has managed to weather a few flawed elections in his 20 years as Miami-Dade County's supervisor of elections.

    That, his critics say, is the problem.

    As the only appointed supervisor of elections among the state's 67 counties, Leahy has never had to face election after a fiasco.

    In 1997, the results of a mayoral election were reversed under his watch. In 2000, Republicans said his staff mishandled ballots and Democrats railed when he and the county's canvassing board stopped the presidential recount.

    On Tuesday, polling places across Miami-Dade opened late, and some machines did not work.

    "If I was the county manager, I would receive and accept his resignation," state Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, said Wednesday. "Here's the difference between him and any other supervisor of elections: If he was up for election in two years, he would have to explain himself."

    Meek wasn't alone in his criticism.

    Florida NAACP president Adora Obi Nweze has suggested that Leahy be removed, and Secretary of State Jim Smith singled Leahy out Wednesday, saying someone with his experience should be able to get the polls open on time.

    In Miami-Dade, with more registered voters than any Florida county other than Broward, the county administrator hires and fires the supervisor of elections.

    Leahy, 55, has worked in the elections office since 1974 and was appointed supervisor in 1981. Over the years, he has developed a reputation as private and businesslike, someone who keeps his politics to himself.

    The problems Tuesday began before anyone could cast a vote at many precincts. New touch screen voting machines were not activated until well after the polls were supposed to open.

    In a Liberty City precinct with a majority of black voters, more than 500 people were turned away because the machines weren't ready four hours after the polls opened. At 36 other precincts, some machines didn't work.

    Leahy acknowledged some poll workers weren't properly trained or didn't do what they should have. He said some were nervous.

    "We had planned for a smooth election day. That didn't happen," he said. "I'm very upset and apologetic to the citizens of Miami-Dade County."

    He called it "unfortunate" that some people were unable to vote.

    "We tried our best," he said. "We were there in spirit."

    But he generally praised the new touch screen machines, explaining that the short timetable for installing them led to problems.

    "These are opening day jitters," he said Wednesday, recycling a line he used to minimize problems during the 2000 presidential election.

    In 1997, when Xavier Suarez and Joe Carollo ran for mayor, evidence of vote-buying and other fraud surfaced, ultimately causing the result of the election to be reversed.

    Leahy convinced the Miami-Dade Commission to give him more money to prevent a recurrence.

    The continuing problems and a perceived attitude of complacency bother Meek, who introduced legislation this year to give voters a chance to require that all election supervisors be elected. It passed the state Senate but fell short on the floor of the House.

    Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas defended Leahy, calling him a "competent public official."

    "Let's not crucify this man until we know all the facts," he said. "A lot of questions remain unanswered. We don't need a witch hunt at this stage. We need a quick fact-finding process. Let's figure it all out."

    Miami-Dade County Commission Chairwoman Gwen Margolis, an election canvassing board member, said it is too early to heap blame on Leahy.

    "Obviously there's a lot of major disappointment not only in the system but in the whole management of this election," she said. "We certainly are going to have a very major investigation of what went wrong, and as that all goes forward, we'll be able to discuss where the blame lies."

    -- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press.

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