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Lida Rodriguez-Taseff was trying to grab a quick lunch on September 11, 2002, when Keith Hartley cornered her in the Pollo Tropical downtown. He wouldn't let her go until a wad of napkins covered in a girlish scrawl lay piled beside her tray of dessicating chicken. "This was a disaster," Hartley assured the then-president of the local chapter of the ACLU. "I worked the polls on Miami Beach. I saw it all happen."
The day before, Miami-Dade County had managed to top its record for screwy elections with a spectacular show of incompetence that nearly eclipsed the debacle of 2000. It was the gubernatorial primary, the one in which Janet Reno was narrowly beaten by a sweaty, bland lawyer from Tampa, who in turn was easily crushed by Jeb Bush in November. This was the first time the spanking-new voting toys for which the county elections department had laid out $24.5 million were used, and sheer, stark chaos reigned. Precincts opened late, voting machines malfunctioned, hundreds of voters were turned away from the polls, and more than 1500 votes vanished.
Hartley, 44, was one of that day's heroes. A residential contractor by trade, he was inspired by the debacle of the 2000 elections to become a poll worker in his precinct at Nautilus Middle School in 2002. But in the wee, dark hours of September 10, he arrived to discover that the clerk of the precinct hadn't booted up any of the machines. In a scene repeated many times throughout the county that day, the new technology flummoxed an undertrained poll-working population heavily skewed toward the elderly and the unskilled. "I grabbed a book and got the machines up and running," Hartley recalls. "I'm used to computers. The clerk had no clue how to do it. From then to end of the day I ran the poll." Other precincts weren't so fortunate.
After hearing this story, Rodriguez-Taseff called Courtenay Strickland, who coordinates the ACLU's voting rights project. "This is really important," she said to Strickland. "Let's get a group together." A lot of other people in Miami-Dade County had the same idea. Calls flooded into the ACLU offices. Within a couple of days, a loose coalition of activists held a press conference at the Apostolic Revival Center in Liberty City. The talk was angry, with many black voters complaining that, once again, their votes had been, in effect, stolen. "A reporter asked, öWhat are you going to do?'" Rodriguez-Taseff remembers. "Without thinking, I said, öWe are going to form a coalition.'"
Thus was born the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition (MDERC). Meetings were (and still are) every Wednesday evening at the ACLU offices on Biscayne Boulevard. A shared outrage attracted dozens of citizens from black, Hispanic, and Anglo sectors. "They came pouring in from all over Miami," asserts Martha "Marnie" Mahoney, a University of Miami law professor and coalition member. "The sense of urgency and desperation, and of there needing to be a citizen response, was intense." Rodriguez-Taseff led the disparate, sometimes unruly mob, verbally arm-wrestling it into a workable crew. With such a large number of people, including members of the NAACP, Miami Workers Center, Brothers of the Same Mind, the League of Women Voters, part of the fight was to remain non-partisan and free of discrediting conspiracy theories. "You have to be willing to indict everybody," Rodriguez-Taseff argues. "Not just one target."
Within a scant two months, the coalition firmly inserted itself into the scrambled efforts of the county to get its shit together for November. Among other things, they demanded and got a concession unprecedented in the United States -- international, independent elections observers, of the sort normally seen trooping into godforsaken places most Americans can't find on a map. "I just thought that was the nuttiest damn thing," admits Rodriguez-Taseff, "but it turned out to be brilliant."
With a massive infusion of chagrin, police help, and millions in emergency cash, the county pulled off a fairly smooth November election. The coalition, which had monitored the process throughout, put out a report on its observations and recommendations. People talked about meeting less frequently, with the idea that eventually the group would fade away. But this is Miami, the nexus of weird within the spiral of political oddities the world has come to know and love as the state of Florida. Things were just starting to get interesting.
Lida Rodriguez-Taseff looks like a fashion model, talks like a sailor, and strategizes like a general. She's actually a harried attorney, at 37, a partner in a big firm in downtown Miami. As lawyer bitches go, she's the kind you want on your side, chipping away at seemingly unassailable defenses with staccato bursts of logic and sarcasm. "Lida will use the F-word if it fits," observes coalition member Bud Gillette, a 72-year-old ex-Army colonel. "She's very direct. I like that." For two years, she's led what she calls "the ultimate garage band" of civic platoons. The members come and go as their lives change, but there are a few constants. Bobbie, Dan, Marnie, Bud, Marta, Sandy, and a dozen more form the core of the idiosyncratic bunch that has managed to make life miserable for the likes of local Supervisor of Elections Constance Kaplan, Secretary of State Glenda Hood, and Jeb Bush. The strain occasionally breaks through, as in June, when the MDERC called on Bush to ask for an independent review of the state's error-prone touch-screen voting systems. The response? "We are not going to engage in every accusation du jour from people whose goal it is to undermine voters' confidence," snapped a Bush spokesman. A Hood spokeswoman echoed a nearly identical sentiment. In general, the pair has taken the position that Florida has its elections well in hand and any criticism must be motivated solely by partisan politics. Likely true in some cases.