Vote Interrupted

Were the absentee ballots lost or stolen? Either way, it's a crime.

Hall was hired in 1986 by former Elections Supervisor Jane Carroll, a Republican whose office Oliphant took over in 2000. Hall, who is black, would become one of the new supervisor's most aggressive office critics. Oliphant fired Hall and another elections worker, Pat Nesbit, on October 7, 2003 --which may have sealed the supervisor's fate.

The day after Hall's employment was terminated, Secretary of State Glenda Hood, a rabid Republican, contacted Oliphant with concerns about the Broward office. A week later, Gov. Bush, at the urging of Kennedy, sent an assessment team to investigate the elections office, which had devolved into chaos.

Bush then asked Kennedy to help him find a replacement for Oliphant and later accepted his recommendation, made with fellow black Republican leader Dorsey Miller. In late November, Bush suspended Oliphant and installed the new supervisor.

Count the ballots. Now.
Michael McElroy
Count the ballots. Now.
Michael McElroy

Hall, meanwhile, didn't remain unemployed long; she was hired to work in Hastings' office under Kennedy in late October. Hall, who didn't return my calls for an interview, also worked closely with Jeb Bush's office as a star witness in the state's case against Oliphant.

Snipes rehired Hall in December. The irony is exquisite: The employee who claimed Oliphant wasn't fit to run an election is now ultimately responsible for one of the largest gaffes in local election history.

And it's not the first absentee ballot scandal linked to Hall. Remember the mysterious 268 unopened ballots found after the 2002 primary in Broward? It was Hall's job to oversee them, but the hapless Oliphant took the heat.

At least one African-American politician suspects Hall altered the outcome of an election. Former Pompano Beach City Commission candidate Walter Hunter says that when he lost his bid for a seat in 2003, Hall threw out 176 of the 437 absentee ballots his campaign had collected. He lost the race to Pat Larkins by just 236 votes.

What especially grates Hunter, who didn't file a complaint, was that Hall publicly supported Larkins. "I have concerns about her," Hunter says of the absentee ballot supervisor.

So do some others.

"I am highly, highly suspicious," says Elgin Jones, a community activist and columnist for the Broward Times. "And I think there needs to be an investigation, not just of Art Kennedy and Mary Hall but of the entire office."

A crime, however, might not have been necessary to sabotage the Broward office -- especially when a wholesome dose of incompetence would do the trick. That's where Salas comes in.

Ed Gillette predicted that the election in Broward would be a mess. The Miami-Dade County poll worker watched in utter disbelief as Snipes, after she'd been in office less than two weeks, hired Salas as her second in command.

Gillette trained poll workers in Miami-Dade for the disastrous September 10, 2002, primary that was overseen by Salas. "When I saw she was going to Broward, I thought it would be a disaster, especially since [Snipes] didn't have any elections experience," Gillette says. "It just seemed like trouble."

In the Miami-Dade debacle, polling places opened late, poorly trained workers abandoned their posts, and voting machines malfunctioned. The utter chaos once again branded Florida's chest with a giant scarlet I -- for incompetence. "I think we all share the blame," Salas said on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer a week after the election. "I mean, we all see where we have possibly gone wrong. Unfortunately, you can't take it back."

Jeb Bush, sitting in his apparently blameless perch in Tallahassee, called the performance "shameful."

The head trainer for that election, Leonora Uribe, says her boss was directly responsible for the disaster. She describes a culture of nepotism and cronyism fostered by Salas, a Republican whom she describes as uninformed, irresponsible, and secretive. "She was always talking about her horses or her husband's motorcycles or her new house," Uribe says. "She was just very materialistic, very into keeping up with the Joneses. She was terrible at her job, but she was politically savvy. She knew how to play the game."

Uribe asserts that her prediction of problems went unheeded. Uribe said she tried to warn Salas that the election would be a debacle. But Salas would respond only, "Trust me."

"Every time she said that, I trusted her less," Uribe said in a October 25, 2002, deposition for a since-dismissed civil rights lawsuit filed after the primary.

Salas not only failed to listen; she didn't even want evidence of the complaints. "Whenever I said anything to her, it had to be verbal, because they didn't want e-mails because it left a paper trail... and they didn't want the media getting ahold of it," Uribe testified.

According to several witnesses, Salas showed up more than two hours late for a key three-hour office meeting one month before the 2002 election. When she got there, Gillette made a procedural recommendation that prompted Salas to have what witnesses described as an emotional breakdown. "She went absolutely ballistic, lost her composure, started crying and screaming... and stormed out," Uribe recounted in the deposition.

"She really went berserk," Gillette recalls of Salas' outburst.

Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, the respected head of the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition, says Salas appeared to have been unfit to run an election. "Every report I ever got was that she really was not terribly competent and she really truly did not know what she was doing," the lawyer says. "The caring people who really wanted to make our elections work had harsh things to say about her. People saw her in a very negative light."

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