TALLAHASEE, Fla. – The state sought the U.S. Department of Justice's help Wednesday to prevent a repeat this November of last week's botched primary election in two South Florida counties.
Confidence in the state's efforts to reform its election system has been shaken by the problems in Miami-Dade and Broward counties in this year's primary, Secretary of State Jim Smith said in a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft on Wednesday.
"The fate of election reform in Florida -- and perhaps our nation -- rests upon an immediate and effective response," Smith wrote.
Smith said he would try to pressure Broward Elections Supervisor Miriam Oliphant to accept a proposal by Broward Commission Chairwoman Lori Parrish that the commission have county workers open polls, staff them and close them and that sheriff's deputies deliver ballots to counting centers.
Smith and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had both earlier suggested that Oliphant might be removed from office, but Smith said Wednesday that would be "terribly disruptive" leading up to the general election. Broward has nearly 1 million registered voters, the most of any Florida county.
Bush and Smith are both Republicans; Oliphant is a Democrat.
Smith, speaking with reporters at the Capitol, said he'd push for the commission takeover.
"I hope -- and I'll put all the political pressure I can on [Oliphant] -- to let the county take this thing over," Smith said after a meeting of the state Elections Canvassing Commission, which certified Bill McBride as the winner of the Democratic primary for governor.
Oliphant would not discuss Smith's request of the Justice Department and said she wouldn't turn over her job responsibilities to the county.
"I will not relinquish my duty as supervisor of elections of Broward County to the Broward County Commission, but I will share my responsibilities with the Broward County Commission," she said.
Smith blamed lack of county poll worker training, a failure to practice using new voting systems and poor organization for election difficulties in Broward and Miami-Dade counties during the Sept. 10 primary.
He said unlike many other counties, they apparently didn't do enough testing of their new touchscreen voting system to make sure workers knew how to run them.
"When you practice you get it right," Smith said. "It is not any kind of failure in the technology. It has been a gross failure in training and practice."
Bush cannot remove Miami-Dade elections supervisor David Leahy, the only non-elected state elections supervisor. Leahy was appointed by Miami-Dade County, for whom he works.
A spokesman for Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas said Penelas welcomed any "constructive assistance," including the federal help.
"The mayor has already requested independent oversight, which the Justice Department is welcome to be a part of," Penelas spokesman David Perez said.
But Perez said Penelas, a Democrat, was bothered by the tone of Smith's letter, which he found to be partisan by seeking to blame only Democrats for the election meltdown.
In Broward, Oliphant has asked county commissioners for money to hire more than 90 additional employees, boost poll worker pay and expand poll worker training.
Art Kennedy, chairman of a task force formed at Oliphant's request for help to prevent another election debacle, said Parrish's proposal sounds reasonable, particularly with Oliphant seeking more money from the county.
"She's a million dollars over budget and she's coming to them and asking for help. She's going to have to do it their way," said Kennedy, chief aide to U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.
Justice Department lawyers were in Miami-Dade County on primary day, but they were thought to be only monitoring compliance with an agreement requiring more bilingual poll workers and literature.
Federal officials investigated Miami-Dade and two central Florida counties for not doing enough for non-English speaking voters in the 2000 election. The counties reached agreements with the Justice Department, which included the monitoring, that averted lawsuits.
Meanwhile, the Department of State will recommend $6 million in spending on voter education and poll worker training next year to try to prevent further mishaps.
The department had originally planned to ask for $150,000 for education and training for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, said Deputy Secretary Dave Mann. But the primary difficulties prompted officials to reconsider that.
To be implemented, the recommendation must be accepted by the governor and approved during the legislature's next session.
During the two years following the 2000 election, the state spent $24 million to buy new voting equipment and $6 million on training and education.