Vote Interrupted

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.

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Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman