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Misdirected blame won't explain the Election Day debacle

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 15, 2002

It's not always easy being a Florida Democrat. Sometimes it requires you to shut down your critical faculties and disconnect yourself from reality in order to buy into the party line.

Last week's election is a case in point. Bill McBride pulled off a stunning upset in narrowly defeating Janet Reno for the Democratic nomination for governor. Unfortunately for McBride, however, his unofficial victory was anticlimactic, a secondary story. The big news was that Florida had botched another close election. Voting machines malfunctioned. Some polling places opened five hours late because poll workers didn't show up on time. The delays and glitches caused hundreds of citizens to give up in disgust and leave without voting. Almost everything that could go wrong did.

Democrats, as usual, rounded up the usual suspects and pointed a finger of blame at Gov. Jeb Bush. Never mind that the worst of the voting problems were in Broward and Miami-Dade, where Democrats are in charge of local government and elections. Before the fall campaign is over, Bush can expect to be blamed for sinkholes, hurricanes and dead manatees. Bush has a lot to answer for, but it's ridiculous for Democrats to suggest that he should be held responsible for Tuesday's election problems.

After the 2000 presidential election debacle, the state vowed it would never happen again. The Legislature rushed through a package of election reforms and gave local officials $32-million to get ready for the 2002 elections. Some counties tossed the old punch-card balloting machines that gave us hanging and dimpled chads two years ago and replaced them with touch screen technology as simple to use as an ATM machine. And best of all, former Secretary of State Katherine Harris, the state's bumbling top elections official in 2000, left office to run for Congress.

With these changes, what could possibly go wrong?

The answer is, plenty. A headline in the Dallas Morning News put it this way: Florida Vote Goes from Chad to Worse.

We have now learned that technology is no better than the people who use it and that incompetent local election officials can still make a mess of things. Some of the biggest problems last Tuesday occurred in Broward County, where Elections Supervisor Miriam Oliphant, a Democrat, proved that Katherine Harris is not the only incompetent when it comes to elections. Oliphant came into office two years ago without any experience and proceeded to replace some of her office's most seasoned staffers with her own cronies. She also spurned offers of assistance from other elections supervisors who must have sensed that she was clueless.

Katherine Harris could not have made a bigger mess in Broward. Once again, Florida is a national laughingstock. And what did Oliphant have to say about it all: "Considering what happened, I think it was a good day." I'd hate to see what she would consider a bad Election Day. Her Miami-Dade counterpart at least offered an apology, even though most of the problems in his county were not of his making.

To listen to Democratic Party leaders, however, you would never know that the election fiasco in Broward and neighboring Miami-Dade had anything to do with Miriam Oliphant or other Democratic elections officials.

This from Democratic Party chairman Bob Poe: "When it comes to election reform, photo-ops are more important to Jeb Bush than protecting the people's right to vote. Given Florida's past experience, Jeb Bush should have spent the past two years working overtime with our state's elections supervisors to do whatever was necessary to ensure Florida's primary went smoothly. Due to Jeb Bush's lack of leadership, Florida has again been embarrassed in the eyes of the nation."

The governor has many responsibilities, but the last time I looked, running local elections is not one of them. That's the job of local elections supervisors such as Miriam Oliphant.

If you buy into Poe's line of reasoning, a Jacksonville precinct that opened 90 minutes late was not the fault of poll workers who didn't realize they were supposed to turn on the voting machines. Obviously, it was the governor's responsibility to make sure the machines were turned on.

Should Bush also be blamed for the fact that hundreds of voters were unable to mark a ballot in a Miami precinct because it took five hours to activate voting machines? And what about all those poll workers who didn't show up in Broward? Does that go on Bush's record, too?

It's time to fix the blame where it belongs -- with local elections officials in those counties that screwed up. Except for a few scattered glitches and problems, most Florida counties did just fine on Tuesday. It's South Florida, a Democratic stronghold, that keeps making a farce of our elections.

Democrats are demanding that Bush do something before the Nov. 5 general election. There is one thing Bush can and should do. He should suspend Miriam Oliphant and put someone in charge of Broward voting who knows how to conduct an election. The Democrats won't like that, of course, and they'll accuse Bush of everything from political interference in local elections to racism (Oliphant is an African-American).

Meanwhile, Bill McBride has some serious issues he wants to take up with Jeb Bush in the fall campaign. It would help if Democrats like Bob Poe shut up, got real and let McBride do the talking.

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