Vote Interrupted

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By the time you read this, you might know the identity of the next president. Or perhaps lawyers reign and the world's fate is hanging, like so much chad, in the balance.

Either way, Broward County is screwed. It's stuck with a dysfunctional elections office that was plagued by technological problems, ill-equipped early voting stations, and, worst of all, the disappearance of thousands of absentee ballots. The question lingers: Was that mysterious disappearance -- which threw the election into disarray and cost countless votes -- the result of a terrible crime or stunning incompetence? Were the ballots lost, or were they stolen? A lot of people think they know the answer.

"Something weird is going on here," said 52-year-old Bud Warren of Coral Springs, whose wife and son never received their ballots. "It's another stolen election. That's my honest opinion."

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement doesn't think so. The FDLE conducted what it called an "investigation" of the ballots last week, and it took agents about 12 seconds to conclude that no crime had been committed. They spoke briefly with Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes and then told the media, in essence, "Move along, folks; nothing to see here."

Call me a rubbernecker, but I see some blood in the wreckage. And I know you can't even investigate a stolen candy bar in 12 seconds, let alone a major breakdown in the democratic process. The agency's dereliction may seem incomprehensible until you take into account who overlords the FDLE: a not-quite-disinterested observer of this election by the name of Jeb Bush.

If a crime was committed, suspicion would fall naturally on supporters of Jeb's brother, George W. Bush, since Broward is a key Democratic stronghold and the vast majority of those ballots were surely earmarked for Kerry voters. Further, Jeb has a special interest in the Broward election, since he handpicked Snipes, a School Board bureaucrat with no prior elections experience, for the job after he removed the embattled Miriam Oliphant last year.

But no one called much attention to the FDLE whitewash. The Sun-Sentinel and Miami Herald have given lots of space to the ballot scandal, but the coverage has been ridiculously superficial. Consider that the media never even identified the elections employee in charge of absentee ballots, Mary Hall.

Now consider that Hall is a highly controversial figure who helped engineer the ouster of Oliphant, who had fired Hall last year. During her brief hiatus from the elections office, Hall was employed in the congressional office of Alcee Hastings. This is interesting because Hastings' chief of staff, who got Hall the job, is a GOP operative named Art Kennedy. As the Sun-Sentinel put it in an October 24 story about leading black Republicans, Kennedy has "direct connections to the governor's mansion and the White House."

Jeb Bush tapped Kennedy to help choose Oliphant's replacement. And once Snipes was in place, a long list of county GOP leaders contributed heavily to her recent campaign, which was run by the law firm of William Scherer -- George W. Bush's campaign co-chair in Broward (see "Be Very Afraid," October 28).

Am I working on a conspiracy theory that Republican operatives stole the ballots? You bet. In Broward County, it's never stupid to theorize that the worst has happened. Remember that we're talking about enough ballots to fill up a small room. Literally tons of them. Kind of hard to lose, if you think about it.

But we can't discount the idea that the problems were caused by sheer incompetence. At this point, there's so much confusion at the elections office that it's impossible to divine the extent of the problem, let alone what caused it.

Deputy Elections Supervisor Gisela Salas, a central figure in any theory that incompetence is to blame, first admitted the problem last week. She said that as many as 58,000 ballots were gone. U.S. Postal Service Spokesman Gerry McKiernan told me his agency's investigation basically found a 14,000-ballot discrepancy between what the elections office says it delivered and what the post office received.

So the number of missing ballots is probably between 14,000 and 58,000. Regardless, it was enough to throw the election off track and cost hundreds, maybe thousands, of votes in a crucial state where the 2000 presidential spread was a mere 537 and polls showed Kerry and Bush dead even.

Snipes has consistently tried to blame the post office for the problem, but McKiernan says an intense internal investigation showed otherwise. "We had more than 20 inspectors go through every processing facility and truck we've got in Broward County," McKiernan says, "and there is no lost mail."

The post office is an easy target -- delinquent bill payers across the country routinely blame it. But if it was the elections office's fault, which seems likely to me, you have to start with Hall and the 19-year elections veteran's Byzantine ties to both Republican opportunists and the bloodless coup of Oliphant. The conclusion one reaches isn't so much that she may have been involved in sabotaging the election as that she has strong ties to people who clearly have a motivation to suppress the heavily Democratic Broward vote.

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.

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."

Shortly after the 2002 mess, Salas was transferred from elections to the Miami-Dade medical examiner's office. Then Snipes whisked her back into the election spotlight. I asked the Broward elections supervisor last week if she knew about Salas' past and of the many charges that she was incompetent. Snipes seemed genuinely taken aback.

"No, and we haven't had those experiences here," she told me with an astonished smile.

I asked her if she really hadn't known about the Miami-Dade problems in 2002.

"I was more familiar with Broward," she replied.

Considering Salas' history, the loss of all those ballots doesn't seem so surprising. Throw in all the intertwining GOP connections and anything seems possible. Whether it was caused by cluelessness or criminal minds, Broward needs the truth. And it's going to take more than a Jeb Bush brushoff to get it.

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