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Election chief's responses are cause for alarm

By Jim DeFede for the Miami Herald

What did Constance Kaplan know and when did she know it?

As Miami-Dade's elections supervisor, Kaplan is responsible for protecting the public's right to vote. But last month, Secretary of State Glenda Hood, who is responsible for the election systems in Florida, took Kaplan to the woodshed for not reporting a problem in the county's new touch-screen voting machines.

It seems that in some cases when the machines are asked to conduct an audit of election results like during a recount precincts are misplaced and in at least two tests, votes were lost.

''We are disturbed to have only recently learned that your office has been dealing with an equipment anomaly in the ES&S voting system as early as May of 2003,'' Hood wrote on May 13, 2004.

Kaplan's response was disturbing. In a letter to Hood dated May 18, 2004, Kaplan wrote: ``As you know, supervisors of elections such as myself must constantly strike a delicate balance between raising valid concerns, such as the ones in question regarding the audit trail mentioned in your letter, and not unnecessarily alarming the public.''

First, Kaplan's position makes no sense. Notifying the secretary of state's office in Tallahassee of a problem shouldn't have been a matter of debate. It should have been automatic. Hood's office was in the best position to apply pressure on the manufacturer, as well as alert other counties using the same system of the potential problem.

Second, this notion of hiding information so as not to ''unnecessarily'' alarm the public is wrongheaded. The only way to restore voter confidence in the system is to be honest with the public. If the public thinks officials like Kaplan are withholding information, then that will be far more damaging to the state in the long run.

Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, chairman of the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition, claims Kaplan has been distorting the facts for months. ''On April 19, 2004, she told the County Commission's subcommittee on elections that she only learned about the problem in December from the coalition,'' Rodriguez-Taseff said. ``We later found e-mails sent to her detailing the problem back in October.''

An Oct. 10, 2003, memo to Kaplan from Orlando Suarez, a division director in the county's technology department, outlines the ''bugs'' as Suarez called them in the system. Other e-mails show that other senior members of the elections department were sent e-mails on the problems in June of 2003.

Kaplan admits she misspoke. ''Of course I learned about it in October,'' she said.

Rodriguez-Taseff says that many of the county e-mails have only come to light because they were seen and released by other agencies, even though the coalition requested copies of all such documents last year.

''We requested these memos months ago, and we were told they didn't exist,'' she said. ``They have cavalierly violated the public records law.''

Kaplan said she doesn't know why documents were withheld: ``It was not intentional. I haven't been hiding anything. I don't know how [the e-mails and memos] were left out.''

She jokingly added: ``I would like to think if we were trying to cover up something, we would do a better job.''

Another concern is Kaplan's solution to the glitch, which Kaplan outlined in a memo for the county manager in April. Unfortunately, what Kaplan didn't share with her boss was a memo from Suarez, in which he bluntly states: ''I do not feel that this is an adequate solution.'' He also said he fears the proposed solution ``will not eliminate the problem.''

Kaplan told me she simply doesn't agree with Suarez's conclusion even though he is the technical expert. I asked Kaplan if she should have noted Suarez's reservations in her memo to the manager. ''No,'' she replied. ``We have staff discussions and varying opinions on several things. We don't all agree on everything.''

And maybe the public should be alarmed after all.

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