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    Votes missing; observers hissing

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 12, 2002

    MIAMI -- A new wave of election problems in South Florida on Wednesday kept elections officials laboring for a second straight night to retrieve votes from touch screen machines that had been expected to spit out results in record time.

    Results from a few dozen precincts were still trickling in late Wednesday from Miami-Dade and Broward counties, which had spent a combined $42-million on computerized voting systems but performed at a pace that was slower than the infamous hand recounts of 2000.

    Meanwhile, a harsh blast of public anger screamed at election officials in both counties for mishandling another Florida election. Many called for the ouster of Broward County Supervisor of Elections Miriam Oliphant and her colleague in Miami-Dade, veteran supervisor David C. Leahy.

    Secretary of State Jim Smith led the charge, saying at an afternoon news conference that both supervisors should have been more organized and that there was no excuse for polls opening hours late in both counties. The delays caused scores of citizens to give up and leave without voting.

    Advocacy groups estimate that thousands of voters were effectively turned away and that many of them probably never tried again.

    Smith, the state's top elections official, called the supervisors' performance "unacceptable." He indicated that high-level discussions were under way about the future of both officials.

    "I may seem hot about this, but I've talked to the governor and I ain't nothing compared to what he is," Smith said at a news conference in Tallahassee. "We are terribly disappointed that so many people worked so hard to be shown such a bad result by a few people."

    He mused about the possibilities: Gov. Jeb Bush suspending Oliphant for malfeasance and maybe having "some power" to do the same for Leahy, who serves under of Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas.

    Asked about the wisdom of suspending Oliphant so soon before the Nov. 5 general election, Smith said tartly, "I'd take my chances."

    Later, Bush promised in Miami: "I guarantee you that in November, the election will run much more smoothly than the supervisors of elections allowed to occur."

    Penelas urged caution, calling for a fact-finding investigation by "an independent entity" and defending Leahy.

    "Let's not crucify this man until we know all the facts," he said.

    Oliphant said she was elected in 2000 with 70 percent of the vote and had no intention of resigning. Unlike Leahy, who issued a public apology Wednesday, she said of her performance on election day: "Considering what happened, I think it was a good day."

    "What planet is she from?" asked an incredulous Kurt Browning, the Pasco County supervisor.

    Browning uses the same system as Miami-Dade and Broward counties -- the iVotronic, manufactured by Election Systems & Software of Omaha, Neb. He was the first Florida supervisor to buy a touch screen system and the first to have his results in Tuesday night.

    Perhaps the harshest assessment of Broward's problems came from Mike Lindsey, a member of Smith's staff who spent Tuesday in Broward. He wrote a bleary-eyed memo to his bosses at 5:36 a.m. Wednesday after a night of dealing with Oliphant.

    "You have NO idea what a mess this has been," Lindsey wrote, adding that the touch screen system worked reasonably well. "The mess was the result of no planning, poor leadership and lack of (accountability) . . . and passing the buck."

    While Tuesday's problems centered on polls opening late, Wednesday brought a different set of foibles involving the cartridges that play a key role in operating the counties' touch screen machines.

    Each precinct has one cartridge that poll workers use to activate the machines at the beginning of the day. Then, when the polls close, the cartridge is inserted into each machine again, this time to collect voting results. In Miami-Dade, the cartridges are hooked to modems at the polling place and the results are sent over a phone line. In Broward, they are delivered by poll workers to counting centers.

    Data cartridges from 250 Broward precincts were still missing at 2 a.m. Wednesday. A judge ordered Oliphant to go to poll workers' homes in search of them. Instead, Oliphant's staff searched a warehouse and found all but 20 of them in supply bags used by poll workers. Data for the remaining precincts was retrieved slowly as Oliphant's staff went to polling places to collect it from the backup memories on machines.

    When Oliphant waited until noon Wednesday to start the task, County Judge Jay Spechler, the head of the canvassing board, criticized her for a lack of urgency as the public and two candidates for governor waited for results.

    Wednesday night, Spechler adjourned for a time in disgust after Oliphant reported a brand new problem: Votes from seven voting machines still had not been retrieved.

    "We're going to take a break because we're tired of getting surprises," the judge said as Oliphant huffed away.

    In a similar effort in Miami-Dade, workers fanned out to 25 precincts Wednesday, collecting vote totals from polling places where workers had trouble Tuesday sending the information over phone lines.

    Leahy blamed some of the county's problems Tuesday on last-minute software adjustments to the voting machines to accommodate Miami-Dade's longer-than-usual trilingual ballot. Instead of taking the standard 60 seconds to start the new iVotronic computerized voting machines, it took six minutes. It took even longer for audio systems used at each precinct to cater to the visually impaired.

    The Miami-Dade software did not arrive until six weeks ago and ballots were not ready until 10 days ago, Leahy said. By then, most poll workers already had been trained and were not schooled on the system's slow startup. That caused delays that kept polls closed long past the 7 a.m. opening time.

    "You figure out the math," Leahy said. "If they start at 6 o'clock in the morning and they open up their booths in sequence, they wouldn't be open until some time like 8 o'clock or so."

    Leahy said neither he, his staff nor Election Systems & Software foresaw the delays. He said the vast majority of precincts opened on time and the touch screens performed well.

    Similar problems also plagued Broward, though there were additional complaints about polling places and voter ID cards that caused many to warn of impending chaos.

    There was wide agreement that both counties needed to quickly improve their poll worker training, which hovers around two and three hours per worker. That contrasts sharply with several other counties, including Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco, where problems were relatively small and many poll workers received as much as 12 hours of training.

    The explanations and promises were of little comfort to advocacy groups and other organizations that have been swamped with calls from disgruntled voters.

    The American Civil Liberties Union condemned Tuesday's performance and warned it could be repeated in November if serious steps are not taken.

    The U.S. Civil Rights Commission, which intensively examined problems in the 2000 election, warned in June of a "mini-disaster" in the primary due to voting machine changes, precinct changes after redistricting and lingering problems.

    Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry on Wednesday blamed the U.S. Justice Department for not taking Florida election problems more seriously and state officials for not guaranteeing a trustworthy election.

    "They should be embarrassed and ashamed that they seem to not be able to run an election system without disenfranchising people who want to vote," Berry said. "I feel miserable about it."

    Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez responded, saying the agency is looking into voter complaints about the election.

    "At this point the federal government may need to step in because it is clearly out of hand," said Sharon Lettman-Pacheco, national deputy field director for People for the American Way.

    "I want a plan," she said. "How are you going to not botch the election again?"

    -- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.

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