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Harris' partisan fixers

When the outcome of last November's presidential election in Florida was cast in doubt and Secretary of State Katherine Harris' role as the state's top elections official came under scrutiny, Harris didn't go looking for outside help from experts in the mechanics and legal technicalities of ballot-counting. Instead, she sought out the most effective partisan fixers she could find.

J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich is Florida's most famous _ or notorious, depending on your point of view _ Republican political consultant. He has run campaigns for Harris, Gov. Jeb Bush and former Gov. Bob Martinez, and he has been an influential behind-the-scenes GOP strategist for decades. For all his mastery of partisan campaigns, Stipanovich, by his own admission, knows very little about the professional operation of elections. Yet Stipanovich virtually moved into Harris' office after Election Day, serving, in his words, as Harris' "personal attorney" during the recounts.

Stipanovich was joined in service to Harris by Tampa political media consultant Adam Goodman, known for his slash-and-burn ads on behalf of Republican candidates. Stipanovich and Goodman acknowledge that they took the lead in crafting Harris' public statements _ and, in the process, setting policy for the state's top elections official.

To take just one crucial example: The day after last November's election, Harris' office prepared a statement noting that overseas ballots had to be "postmarked or signed and dated" by Election Day in order to be legally counted. But a few days later, Harris issued a statement that said overseas ballots had only to be "executed" by Election Day, but not necessarily postmarked by then. According to an exhaustive review by the New York Times, hundreds of overseas ballots subsequently were counted despite late postmarks, or no postmark at all.

None of this should be used as ammunition to refight the election so narrowly won by George W. Bush. However, the emerging details only add to the evidence that the machinery of Florida's presidential election and recount was hopelessly contaminated by partisan influence. The argument that Harris _ co-chair of George W. Bush's campaign in Florida _ served strictly as a neutral elections official always was laughable. But even a secretary of state with a less obtuse sense of propriety than Harris' would have found it difficult to remain above reproach. Our state and county elections officials can't simultaneously serve the interests of the public and their political party. Removing them from direct partisan influence will be a central element of any meaningful election reform.