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The World & Nation

No Victor Yet in Problem-Plagued Fla. Vote

Election: Reno, once considered a shoo-in, still trails in Democratic race. If she loses, she's undecided on whether she'll challenge results.

September 12, 2002|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — After enduring yet another election marred by technical and human foul-ups, Floridians waited in political limbo Wednesday to know whether upstart candidate Bill McBride had succeeded in knocking off Democratic Party superstar Janet Reno in the gubernatorial primary.

With returns in from 97% of the precincts across the state, McBride, a Tampa lawyer who has never held elective office, was leading Reno, the former U.S. attorney general, by 19,500 votes out of more than 1 million cast.

Although some ballots remained to be tallied in Reno's stronghold of South Florida, many observers believed that they were not enough to save the Clinton administration Cabinet member from a humbling upset and that McBride would be facing incumbent Republican Gov. Jeb Bush in November's general election.

"What will be will be," said a resigned Charles Alber, 53, who attended what was supposed to be a Reno victory party at an oceanfront hotel in Bal Harbour that turned into an overnight vigil for updated election returns. "If McBride wins, we'll vote for him--the main thing is to not have Bush in there."

Top officials in the Reno campaign said they were pondering whether to challenge the election in the courts if they lose. In yet another parallel with the disputed presidential election of nearly two years ago, there will be a recount if the margin of victory is a half percentage point or slimmer because a 2001 state law requires it, said David Host, spokesman for the Florida Department of State.

The winner should be known at the latest by 9 a.m. PDT today, Host said. Local elections officials must report results by then.

Glitch-ridden polling in the Sunshine State, a dragged-out wait to know the victor, the possibilities of a recount and lawsuits--"it's deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra said," joked Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, which has organized a grass-roots effort to protect the rights of Florida's minority voters.

Meanwhile, finger-pointing and recriminations were mounting over who was at fault for the technical glitches, the absent poll workers and other problems that kept thousands of people, especially in the Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas, from casting ballots Tuesday.

"A big part of this election went the right way," Secretary of State Jim Smith, the top election official, said in Tallahassee, the state capital. However, he added, two counties in Florida's southeast, Broward and Miami-Dade, should be given an "F minus, minus, minus--totally unacceptable."

The bulk of Tuesday's irregularities were reported in those locales. However, a statewide survey by Associated Press reported problems in 14 of Florida's 67 counties, despite the $32 million appropriated by state lawmakers last year to modernize voting machines, increase voter awareness and train poll workers.

"I guarantee you that in November, the election will run much more smoothly," a plainly irked Bush pledged.

The problems included poll workers who didn't know how to start up new touch-screen voting machines and ballot cards that tore and couldn't be read on optical scanners. Machine problems also delayed the processing of electronic cartridges that contained the votes.

In Broward County, where dozens of polling places opened late, others closed early and poll workers didn't show up to do their jobs, many elected officials demanded the removal of local Elections Supervisor Miriam M. Oliphant. "I am outraged," said county Commissioner Kristin Jacob. "I am so frustrated to once again be the laughingstock of this nation."

State Sen. Steve Geller said Oliphant, a fellow Democrat elected in 2000 who championed the purchase of the touch-screen voting machines, had proved to be a weak administrator. "There were just too many mistakes to be excused," he said.

In her defense, Oliphant said, "I came into Broward County with a budget, a very small budget, to serve 960,000 voters."

As of late Wednesday afternoon, at least 3,500 votes from 10 Broward precincts were still reportedly uncounted.

According to the county manager's office in Miami-Dade, which also was using the touch-screen machines for the first time, election officials there were still working Wednesday afternoon on returns in 17 precincts, and 500 of 27,000 absentee ballots cast still had to be checked.

Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas ordered an investigation into what had gone wrong in the election system, saying, "Our community suffered a black eye on a day we expected to celebrate our democracy."

The state's Republican Party was quick to blame Democrats for the embarrassment at the polls. "Sixty-five of 67 counties got it right, two didn't, and they happen to be run by Democrats," said Florida GOP Chairman Al Cardenas.

However, Neas of People for the American Way contended that Bush, as Florida's chief executive, should be held ultimately responsible for the mess.

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