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Florida Sends SOS On Elections

Florida has issued a call for help to the U.S. Justice Department as it tries to shake off yet another election fiasco.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Florida Secretary of State Jim Smith said problems in Miami-Dade and Broward counties during last week's primary rattled confidence in the state's efforts to reform its election system.

Smith said Thursday he had "absolutely no evidence whatsoever that any civil rights violations occurred or anything of that nature" during the primary when some polling places didn't open on time, others closed early and some votes were not counted in the original tally.

He said the Justice Department "has broad purposes" and "lots of options" in responding to the state's request for help.

"We're reaching out to every level of government," Smith said during a stop at the Broward sheriff's office to thank deputies for helping with the county's ballot review.

Political newcomer Bill McBride narrowly defeated former Attorney General Janet Reno in last week's Democratic primary for governor, but the election miscues were reminiscent of the debacle in Florida during the 2000 White House race.

The balloting this time was beset with equipment failures and human errors despite a $32 million overhaul of Florida's election system to get rid of punch-card ballots and install touch-screen voting machines.

Smith, Florida's top elections official, said the state is reviewing the problems and asked Ashcroft to "take whatever steps you deem necessary to participate in this review." He also asked the Justice Department to assist elections supervisors in ensuring a smooth general election.

Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, also sent Ashcroft a letter supporting Smith's request.

Justice spokesman Jorge Martinez said the department would carefully review the letter, but declined further comment Wednesday.

Most of the problems in Miami-Dade and Broward during the Sept. 10 primary were blamed on lack of county poll worker training, a failure to practice using new voting systems, and poor organization.

"It is not any kind of failure in the technology," Smith said. "It has been a gross failure in training and practice."

Broward County's elections supervisor, Miriam Oliphant, would not comment about specific details of Smith's request to the Justice Department. Smith "is entitled to request any type of assistance or role he chooses," Oliphant said.

Miami-Dade County election supervisor David Leahy did not return repeated calls seeking comment Wednesday.

In Washington, President Bush's spokesman had gentle criticism for the two county supervisors Wednesday.

"Those county officials had a lot of new money that the state of Florida provided for them in order to have a successful election," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

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