Thursday, January 23, 2003

Maybe this will finally get the court of public opinion to realize the problems in Florida elections are not the fault of the Governor, the former Attorney General (now a Congressperson), nor the President...,0,2167680.story?coll=sfla%2Dhome%2Dheadlines

Prosecutors find 100 uncounted ballots in Oliphant's office
By Scott Wyman
Staff writer

January 23, 2003

State prosecutors have found a tray of unopened absentee ballots that the Broward County elections office never counted during the September primary, sources told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel on Wednesday.

The ballots were postmarked as early as a week before the election and appeared to contain all the necessary information to have been deemed valid votes, the sources said. Prosecutors found about 100 ballots in a mail tray inside a file cabinet at Elections Supervisor Miriam Oliphant's Fort Lauderdale office during a search late Tuesday afternoon.

County officials were stunned by the discovery and said it would likely be a key piece of evidence in the ongoing investigation of Oliphant. It also could renew pressure on Gov. Jeb Bush to remove Oliphant because he said last week that he would do so only if he is presented with clear evidence of misconduct.

"If this turns out to be true, I'd be very upset about people losing their right to vote," said County Judge Jay Spechler. He served as chairman of the election canvassing board during the primary and voted against certifying the results because of his concerns about the conduct of the election.

State Attorney Mike Satz's spokesman, Ron Ishoy, declined to comment, and Oliphant could not be reached.

Prosecutors launched their wide-ranging investigation in mid-December, subpoenaing records and beginning to interview election office employees. The investigation has focused on charges of misspending raised in a county-ordered audit and the possibility that hundreds of absentee votes were never counted during the primary.

Faced with mounting concerns about Oliphant's rocky tenure, investigators promised last week that they would expedite their work. That appears to be happening, sources said, with at least five employees being questioned in the past two days.

Sources said that prosecutors came to Oliphant's office late Tuesday, just as she was wrapping up her meeting with county commissioners over her budget problems. The prosecutors demanded to see any ballots contained in a specific file cabinet.

Mary Hall, Oliphant's absentee ballot supervisor, brought the tray to them, the sources said.

The ballots were postmarked locally between Sept. 4 and Sept. 9, enough time to reach the office by the end of business on Election Day -- Sept. 10. The ballots contained the appropriate information to be counted: a witness name and address and a voter signature, the sources said.

Allegations have circulated for months among top-level county officials that hundreds of absentee ballots were not counted in the September primary and had been thrown away. The concerns were so strong that Spechler asked Sheriff Ken Jenne to order his staff to collect absentee ballots received by mail on the day of the Nov. 5 election.

The discovery comes at a time when officials are reeling from the Tuesday confrontation with Oliphant.

Supervisor's report

This was to be the week when Oliphant finally explained how she would rein in her runaway spending and correct the mismanagement uncovered by the audit. Instead, Oliphant's long-awaited report to the county was filled with questionable information about the new voting machines, her finances and who is to blame for election missteps. It included an "austerity budget" -- a deficit-reduction action plan -- that was actually a request for an extra $2.9 million.

The information in the four-inch-thick report added to the exasperation that county commissioners felt when they left Tuesday's meeting with Oliphant. During the session, Oliphant gave only vague answers to questions even as she asked for more cash, telling the board she will have no money left as of May 31.

"It's like the theater of the absurd," a frustrated Commissioner Lori Parrish said Wednesday.

Oliphant said in her report that the public should give her the benefit of the doubt about her operations.

"It is ... disenchanting when it appears that this elected official is continuously placed under the microscope, especially in such early stages of my tenure," she wrote. "My energy, heart and mind remain committed to the tasks at hand."

Voting machine woes

Many of Oliphant's comments in the report were directed at the ATM-style voting machinery that the county purchased last year to replace the old punch-card ballots.

She alleged that the county had encountered widespread problems with the machines, that the machines were to blame for her cost overruns and that other counties also had problems.

"This equipment vendor has done an impressive job in shifting blame and responsibility from themselves," she wrote.

Writing about the extra money she said she had to spend because of the equipment, she said: "Although it is true we exceeded our [fiscal year] 2001-2002 budget, I stand behind the decisions this office made."

Her comments directly contradict other information.

The county-ordered audit said Oliphant went $1 million over budget because she hired more people than allowed in her budget, handed out double-digit pay raises and spent more than planned on office renovations. The auditor never mentioned any overspending caused by the computerized voting machines.

And a county review found that the machinery performed as expected with only minor glitches. Many of the problems voters experienced in the September primary were because poll workers weren't trained adequately in running the machines, and only limited problems were found when county employees managed the equipment in November.

Other elections supervisors in Florida are largely pleased with the performance of the touch-screen machines and said their elections costs have not increased significantly because of the machines' use.

"It is grossly unfair of her to push the cost off on the voting system," said Kurt Browning, who also purchased machines from Election Systems & Software as Pasco County's elections supervisor. "It is not true."

Oliphant went on the offensive against commissioners in the report. She blamed the County Commission for underfunding her office, cutting her budget, causing chaos by changing precinct lines and refusing to pay for her voter outreach program.

"Too many changes occurred since I took office and the staffing limit put upon this organization by the commission doesn't allow me to properly do my job as supervisor of elections," Oliphant wrote.

She added that the county had "cut budgets and refused services" only to end up "condemning the supervisor for necessary cost overruns." She wants to hire 21 new employees.

Staffing levels

The commission did not cut her budget last year but agreed to increase her spending by $478,260 to $5.8 million, as she requested. A comparison of her staffing with Florida's other urban counties shows it is in line with other elections offices.

Oliphant has one employee for every 15,000 voters. Palm Beach County has one for every 20,000, Miami-Dade County one for every 13,000, Pinellas one for every 17,000 and Hillsborough one for every 19,000.

While the commissioners signed off on the new precinct boundaries, Oliphant was responsible for drawing the lines and sought the commission's approval. The new map caused problems last year as thousands of voters were assigned new polling places.

And although Oliphant's report states that the commission "won't provide my office with staff positions to continue with voter education and registration drives," the commission has not been asked about continuing the program. Oliphant killed the project last year as a belt-tightening measure, saying it had served its purpose of educating voters about the new machinery.

"The report was very accusatory with no explanations and lots of excuses," said Commissioner Ben Graber, a one-time supporter of Oliphant who now wants her to resign. "It's on par with what we've learned to expect from her."

Scott Wyman can be reached at swyman\ or 954-356-4511.

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