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.

Mahoney began writing letters about this, including one to Ed Kast, head of the state's Division of Elections in Tallahassee. But up in sausage town, they were in full legislative hijinks mode. A very bad bill, filed on behalf of a state elections department lobbyist with the amusing name of Rivers Bufford III, was oozing through a senate subcommittee that aimed to outlaw recounts on touch screen voting systems. "They had sold the audit trails to us as the reason you don't need the paper ballot," points out Sandy Wayland.

Wayland organized to defeat the bad bill, leaning on a wide network of people to flood senate judiciary offices with calls and e-mails. "We shut down [state Sen. Alex] Villalobos's office for two days," recalls Bobbie Brinegar. "He couldn't take it. Took the phone off the hook." That campaign did the trick, eventually killing the bad language in the bill.

But it wasn't over. The state elections division created an administrative rule to prevent recounts on touch-screen machines. (An administrative law judge threw the rule out last month.) "Why was it so important to them to prevent a recount?" Wayland asks. "Then you go back to the Orlando Suarez memo. They can't do the audit. They can't do a recount. And they don't want everybody to find out."

Jonathan Postal
The  garage band of democracy do-gooders, clockwise from back left: Marta Gillette, Courtenay Strickland, Franisco Pardo, Dan McCrea, Bud Gillette, Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, and Sandy Wayland.
Jonathan Postal
The garage band of democracy do-gooders, clockwise from back left: Marta Gillette, Courtenay Strickland, Franisco Pardo, Dan McCrea, Bud Gillette, Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, and Sandy Wayland.

This slightly paranoid perspective was bolstered in June, when Ed Kast suddenly resigned. Most people attributed it to the embarrassing revelation that state elections officials had known that the list of ex-felons ineligible to vote was seriously flawed in a way that disproportionally affected African-Americans. But Boca Raton congressman Robert Wexler, a Democrat who is suing the state to try to force a paper record for touchscreen machines, alleged that Kast really quit because he'd lied in a deposition about when he learned of a software flaw in the machines Miami-Dade uses. He asked the state's attorney general to investigate, but to no avail.

In July, the coalition again made public records requests, this time for the audits of the September 2002 primary. Donald Llopis, Kaplan's new tech guy, reported back that the elections department computers had crashed twice last year and so they'd lost most of the data files for that election. It later turned out that the lost information was sitting on a disk in a file cabinet. However, the national uproar over the extreme ineptness demonstrated by the department (and exposed by the wicked little do-gooders in the New York Times) finally put a fire under Kaplan's behind.

The flames came from commission chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler, who asked the inspector general to assess the department's readiness to conduct an election. Herald columnist Jim DeFede also shamed county manager George Burgess into cutting short a vacation to deal with the issue before the August 31 primary. Burgess, a veteran county man nervous about his prospects when a new mayor is elected in November, threw everything he had at it. There were sweaty press conferences filled with promises, numerous meetings, and a rollout of about a thousand county employees to work polls. On August 31, voter turnout was less than 30 percent. The election ran smoothly.

After the primary, the MDERC collected reports from members who had watched the polls. Mostly, people observed fairly minor violations of elections rules, describing overall a scene reminiscent of a bunch of nervous, eager kids putting on a school play for the first time. There were a few worrisome tales of "human error" -- poll workers using pencils for voter sign-in instead of non-erasable pens, of discrepancies between the number of people who signed in to vote and the number of votes recorded, and even a story about a lady voting in the wrong precinct, then having a poll worker cancel her vote on the machine.

Lynne Kaplan, a community education liaison at the Miami-Dade school district, told the coalition that she saw several violations occur at New Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Liberty City, where she stayed the entire day. For instance, she said, she witnessed poll workers actually helping voters to vote, instead of demonstrating the machine, then letting the voter cast a secret ballot. And there was more, a scene that probably fits the national view of elections in Miami as a perpetual fiesta. "The poll workers were cooking, fish and rice and greens," Kaplan relates. "They had a little kitchen back there and the precinct clerk yelled at one lady because she didn't bring any food to share." Kaplan added that she witnessed a strange phenomenon at the closing, which was that one precinct recorded five more votes than the number of people who signed the poll register. This was particularly odd because only seventeen people had voted.

Naturally, Lida Rodriguez-Taseff nearly got herself arrested. She and Brinegar went to watch the poll closing at Olinda Elementary in Liberty City, along with a documentary film crew from New York. The poll workers instructed the crew to turn off its camera, but Rodriguez-Taseff argued that a poll closing is a public event. They called the cops. Rodriguez-Taseff called Connie Kaplan, who first told her the crew couldn't film without permission from the poll workers, then relented. "The sad part, with all this, we didn't get to actually watch the poll closing," the scrappy lawyer laughs.

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