Florida Democratic primary still in limbo

MIAMI, Sept. 13 (UPI) -- Gov. Jeb Bush's Democratic opponent in the November general election is still in doubt, although both Tampa attorney Bill McBride and Jim Smith, the state's chief election officer, say it is McBride.

McBride's main opponent in Tuesday's primary election, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, has refused to concede a race that remains very close.


The Reno campaign asked for a statewide recount moments before the deadline at 5 p.m. EDT Friday, and the state canvassing board immediately denied the request on grounds that it didn't meet the legal criteria.

Campaign officials said they don't intend to take the matter to the courts.

The results are clouded by a series of glitches that resulted in south Florida voters turning away in disgust and forcing the state to keep the polls open for two hours after the usual 7 p.m. closing time.

The elections supervisors in Miami-Dade and Broward counties are under heavy fire, but both are expected to remain in office through the Nov. 5 general election.

The three-member state canvassing board accepted the unofficial returns from all 67 counties, giving McBride an edge of 8,196 votes among nearly 1.4 million votes cast. The margin was 44.5 percent to 43.9 percent.


Miami-Dade County asked for permission to look into its results and file another report Tuesday. Secretary of State Jim Smith said he will deal with it at that time.

Uncounted votes have been found in at least four South Florida precincts. If Reno gets at least 1,400 more votes, it would trigger an automatic recount under Florida law, because the difference between her total and McBride's would be less than half of 1 percent of all votes.

Reno said her top priority is making sure all the votes from the primary are counted accurately, and that whether she is the governor or a private citizen, she will work to straighten out the election system so people who vote can be assured their votes will count.

McBride plans to plunge ahead with his campaign against Bush, and Reno says if it turns out she lost, she will support him.

"I want to congratulate Bill McBride on a great campaign," she said Friday. "I think he ran a very strong campaign, and it was a pleasure to have such a positive, excellent discussion of the issues as we went along.

"If he is the nominee, I will campaign for him as hard as I can and support him in every way possible, for I think he will make a great governor and I think he will be elected if he is the nominee," she said.


McBride promised a hard campaign against Bush, President George W. Bush's younger brother, just as he conducted his drive against Reno.

"I want you to know that I think this election was not about party and that I want the Republicans, independents, as well as Democrats all over Florida, to know that what I talked about since last year was about our future and our collective futures, not just about Democrats," he said.

"It wasn't an election just about us. It was an election about everybody in this state. And what I talked about then, I'm going to keep talking about. I'm going to take it right down to Nov. 5," McBride said.

But elections officials in south Florida warned things could change. The mess could rival that of the 2000 presidential election, which resulted in a 5-week dispute over who was the next president.

Bush was declared the winner by 537 votes after a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, and it made Florida the butt of many jokes.

This time, officials in Miami-Dade County said it might take an examination of all 7,200 machines to get it right.

Several Miami-Dade precincts with hundreds of registered voters each are listed as showing one vote or no votes. Broward County's tabulation at Fort Lauderdale, Fla., shows no votes cast among hundreds of voters. Both counties use new Votronic machines.


"When you get one vote in a place with 1,500 registered voters, you know there's something wrong," said David Leahy, Miami-Dade's elections supervisor.

Leahy and Broward County supervisor Miriam Oliphant have both been the targets of criticism and threats.

Several Miami-Dade County commissioners said consequences could be severe for Leahy, if elections set for Oct. 1 and Nov. 5 don't go on without a hitch.

"We just can't have this problem again," said Commissioner Javier Souto. "If we do, I expect suicides. If it happens again, we should all, as managers, jump from the top of this building."

Leahy said the system for hiring poll workers was outdated because of the increased complexity of the technology. He wants to recruit county employees with computer experience.

"I've been in the election business for 28 years," Leahy said. "I've watched the complexity of the polling place increase each year. Now, it's almost impossible, with the type of people we have at the polls, to administer that election process."

Oliphant has also placed some of the blame on underqualified poll workers and accepted little of it herself.

Officials in Miami-Dade County also complained of a long ballot but also admitted that erroneous ballots had to be replaced on some machines a day before the elections, and some computer programming cards might have been installed upside down.


Both Leahy and Oliphant are expected to keep their jobs through the Nov. 5 election.

After a closed-door meeting with Attorney General Bob Butterworth and Sheriff Ken Jenne, Oliphant agreed to accept help. The form of the help was undetermined.

Democratic officials feared that if Oliphant were removed, it would give the Republican governor the opportunity to name a replacement for her.

"Our goal is to have a successful election," Oliphant said. "We cannot do it alone. We need the entire community to make the election a success."

In Miami-Dade County, voters who fear their vote didn't count just want it fixed.

Caren Lesser said she was "not surprised given the condition of the voting process in Florida. It's just living up to its reputation."

Silvia Fernandez was told only four votes were counted at her precinct. She said it was a lie.

"They are crazy. That's a lie. When I voted, there were like 10, 15 people there," she said.

"It's just a slap in the face," said Barbara Turner, 41. "You go to vote because you are encouraged, and then your vote doesn't count for anything."

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