Rage Against the Machines

Like a modern version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, well-meaning people battle corrupt mechanisms only to discover that the true enemies of democracy are human.

In this case, just the opposite is true. If anything, Rodriguez-Taseff is often criticized by left-leaning elections groupies for her militant approach to scouring partisan rhetoric from the organization's efforts. Such criticism occurred at an August meeting in which one new member complained that she was being uncompromising about kicking people off the MDERC Internet listserve for posting even mild political statements. Rodriguez-Taseff was unapologetic. "There's a certain purity to what we do that makes us successful," she explained sternly. "It leads to really unrigorous thinking when people are willing to polarize and say that this party is stealing the election from that party. Al Gore got everything coming to him because he did nothing to ensure every vote was counted. He didn't care about counting every vote. He just wanted to win."

Besides their concentration on the voter rather than the race, the members are remarkably effective because they focus on the nuts and bolts of elections -- everything from poll worker training to voter registration, absentee ballots, the squirrelly voter purge list of ex-felons, access for disabled voters, and of course, the darkest secrets of those troublesome machines. Tied into this last item is tracking the real cost of elections. For instance, during the August 31 primary, the county mobilized thousands of county workers and cops to ensure a smooth election, a cost which was borne by the general fund rather than the elections department budget.

Each member brings his or her own special powers to the endeavor. Marnie Mahoney is a meticulous, obsessive-compulsive law prof the group credits with much of the heavy intellectual lifting in figuring out the technical problems with the machines. Square-jawed, bespectacled Bud Gillette and his Chilean wife Marta have volunteered as poll workers for years, which gives them a street-level perspective and access to elections department gossip.

Jonathan Postal
When Miami-Dade elections supervisor Connie Kaplan arrived from Chicago in 2003, she inherited a sleepy, insular department, new technology, and a lot of critics
Jonathan Postal
When Miami-Dade elections supervisor Connie Kaplan arrived from Chicago in 2003, she inherited a sleepy, insular department, new technology, and a lot of critics

A strutting blond bundle of energy, 48-year-old Sandy Wayland is a Fendi distributor and chairwoman of the Miami-Dade National Women's Political Caucus. She has become the group's lobbyist in Tallahassee. Or as Dan McCrea puts it, "Sandy understands sausage town." McCrea is a construction consultant by profession, and one-term South Miami commissioner who was briefly the second Green Party member elected in Florida. A doughy, affable man partial to Marlboros and white wine, he's the holistic, practical one, who often helps with writing and dealing with county officials. And then there's Bobbie Brinegar, president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the League of Women Voters. Brinegar, 51, is a bright, disarmingly friendly woman prone to silly jokes and devising button slogans. She's the one they send in to soften up public officials who might otherwise be inclined to dismiss the group, or see it as an adversary. "I'm the county kiss-ass," she quips.

After the 2002 election crisis had passed, Miami-Dade's long-serving supervisor of elections, David Leahy, was quite rightly called to task for the debacle in September. Leahy, a blandly agreeable bureaucrat, had been the appointed supervisor for 21 years (all other county supervisors in Florida are elected). Then county manager Steve Shiver, in a quest to save his own neck, encouraged Leahy to resign, but he planned a sneaky maneuver that would essentially ensure that the status would remain quo.

Shiver trotted out the old political contrivance of doing a "national search" for Leahy's replacement. A selection committee of respectable community types would vet applicants, but Shiver made Leahy the head of the committee. The guy had screwed up so badly he couldn't be trusted with the job, yet he was going to get to help choose his replacement. Shiver had also restructured the elections department to, in effect, take power away from the next supervisor, and give it to -- David Leahy. He planned to keep Leahy on as a highly paid elections adviser (late last year Leahy was moved through the ever-generous county pipeline of jobs to land a gig in the Consumer Services Department, intially keeping his annual $155,000 salary). Oh, sweet irony.

Because of the civic racket the MDERC had been making, Shiver tossed the busybodies a bone, one seat on the selection committee. The coalition sent Rodriguez-Taseff, and backed her up by doing the research on candidates. There were 115 applicants for the job. Over a few months, the committee went through the résumés, and each member recommended his or her top picks. From that, a short list of eight candidates was chosen by vote to interview. Make that nine. "The selection process was the sleaziest thing in the world," maintains Rodriguez-Taseff. "We selected the eight people. The name Constance Kaplan was not among them. But the chairman, Dave Leahy, stands up and says, öOh, we should also interview Connie Kaplan from Chicago. She's terrific.'"

Connie Kaplan spent 33 years with the Chicago Board of Elections Commissioners, the last eleven as its number two, responsible for community services, training, and special programs. She also had experience as an elections troubleshooter in places such as Indonesia, Albania, Zambia, and China. She seemed competent, but coalition members were disturbed by Leahy's last-minute meddling. Especially when they began hearing that the fix was in. "From inside the elections department, people were saying that this woman from Chicago, whose application we didn't even have, was on the fast track," recalls Bobbie Brinegar. "She ended up in the top two." Unsurprisingly, Shiver picked Kaplan over the other sucker the selection committee had also recommended.

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